2014 Georgia Legislative Preview 

Prepare for the quickest session in recent history

ALL’S QUIET: Stillness inside the Georgia House of Representatives days before state lawmakers gathered for the start of the annual General Assembly on Jan. 13.

Joeff Davis

ALL’S QUIET: Stillness inside the Georgia House of Representatives days before state lawmakers gathered for the start of the annual General Assembly on Jan. 13.

It's January, which means it's time for state lawmakers across Georgia to start making their way to Atlanta for the annual General Assembly. For 40 days, men and women elected to make the state a better place will gather inside the Capitol to politick, trade horses, and decide how to spend approximately $20 billion in public cash.

With Georgia's 2014 elections looming, state representatives and senators in the Republican-led Gold Dome, as well as Gov. Nathan Deal, will be in a hurry to start and end the people's business. Those running for office aren't able to raise funds until the session is gaveled to a close and papers are thrown high into the air on Sine Die. That'll likely mean a quicker session, fewer laws passed (for better or worse), and, of course, extreme legislative proposals aimed at firing up each party's base. Expect bold bills, less risk-taking, and for the GOP majority to cozy up to different voter types with favorable measures.

CL spent several weeks speaking with lawmakers, lobbyists, and advocates about what to expect under the Gold Dome throughout the next 40 days. High on the to-do list: passing a bill that solidifies the May 20 primary date to comply with federal law, or else incur fines. Besides that and the budget, it'll be a race against time to debate as much as possible, including legislation that could clamp down (or even loosen) ethics rules, further split the metro region, or overhaul medical malpractice laws. Only one thing's for sure: You can never truly count anything out inside the Capitol.

Budget

By law, the General Assembly is required to do one thing and one thing only every year: pass the budget. What sounds simple is rarely easy, however. With lawmakers planning for a short session so they can raise money and campaign in time for the May primaries, there's a strong chance that legislators will accomplish — slow clap, please — even less than last year.

"On my horizon, it's budget, budget, budget," says state Rep. Lynne Riley, a North Fulton Republican and one of Deal's House floor leaders. "There isn't anything new we need to fund."

Funding for departments and initiatives in the 2014 budget should largely remain the same. Tax revenue increases over the past year means the state now has more than $900 million in surplus cash. Much of those funds could go toward pay raises for state employees, many of whom have watched their net earnings decrease due to rising health care costs and frozen salaries. Some lawmakers think the extra funds should go toward educators.

Since it's an election year, insiders anticipate that the budget process could become political theater. Deal's running for re-election against two education advocates, state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, and Georgia School Superintendent John Barge. Deal could push for those raises as a way to win last-minute votes from teachers, one of the state's strongest voting blocs. If so, Carter could call for even more favorable education policies and higher teacher salaries than the governor is willing to push.

"You've got a governor who has no record to run on with respect to education," Carter says. "I assume, because it's an election year, there will be some attempt by the governor to salvage that record. ... Whether it's a good idea or if it all makes sense, we'll have to wait and see."

The politicization of the budget process could serve as a proxy battlefield for the May primaries. Or state leaders could simply follow conservative doctrine and opt to deposit the cash in Georgia's rainy day fund.

Eyes will also be watching how Deal decides to allocate the hundreds of millions of dollars in cash the state generates from annual bond sales. Sometimes the debt is used to pay for capital projects such as building schools, but Deal could opt to allocate the cash to help deepen the Port of Savannah, a major economic development project. Or the governor could be sure key allies' districts get boosts with a project or two.

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