Rep. Scott Holcomb says it’s simple. With a presidential primary scheduled for Georgia in March, “there’s likely to be a lot of nonsense” during the coming session of the state General Assembly, the DeKalb Democrat says.
Political posturing is “already out there,” Holcomb said. His prediction for the 2016 Legislature? “I think it’s going to be a year not terribly impressive in terms of legislative accomplishment,” he said. “The shadow of the presidential primary is going to weigh heavily on the Gold Dome. You’re just going to see a lot of nonsense.”
Still, state lawmakers are bound to do something during the 40 days they meet and debate the state’s business, even if it’s only to approve a state budget. And as legislators prepared for the start of the 2016 Georgia General Assembly, set to start Jan. 11, there was plenty of new legislation being talked up.
Local lawmakers said they expect to spend much of the session arguing over hot-button statewide issues such as gambling, the state budget, funding for education and merit pay for teachers. “I think it’s going to make for an interesting year,” Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Buckhead) said. “I really think education is going to be one of the big ones this year.”
The proposal to allow casino gambling in Georgia “will be taken seriously,” Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs) said, but he and several other local lawmakers seemed unwilling to predict that it would pass this year. “I don’t see that happening in this session, particularly in an election year,” said Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody). “I know a lot of legislators are looking at it, but I don’t think this will happen during this [session],” said Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody). “I think there’s still a lot of the religious right out there that’s still opposed.”
Some said they expect the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” to produce a lot of debate, but not to pass. “I think it’ll be something we’ll hear about,” said Rep. Taylor Bennett (D-Brookhaven), who has been a vocal opponent of the bill and said he expected he would continue to be in the thick of the argument.
There are plenty of other ideas floating around: Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) said he is proposing safeguards against identity theft. Millar proposes allowing special accounts for people with disabilities. And Wilkinson said he plans to push legislation to make “the adoptable dog” the official state dog.
Several legislators plan to propose local changes.
Holcomb plans to introduce legislation calling for a referendum to change the form of government in DeKalb County to eliminate the position of CEO. Instead, he wants to give voters a chance to create a county government with nine commissioners, including a commission chairman who’s elected countywide and a county manager, he said. That would replace the current system, which has seven commissioners and an elected CEO, who has much of the authority of a mayor and a county manager combined.
Holcomb says he wants to hold the referendum this year because the presidential election in November should attract a relatively large number of voters. He argues the proposal deserves a lot of debate and a lot of voters. “If it passes, great. If it fails, great,” he said. “Let the voters have that decision.”
Taylor plans to again promote his proposal calling for a constitutional amendment allowing cities to start their own school systems. The number of school systems in Georgia is limited by the state Constitution, but Taylor wants a statewide vote on whether to allow more systems so cities could break away from large county districts and start smaller, local school systems. The limit on the number of districts was set in 1945, Taylor said, and is outdated. “I don’t think that in ’45, they envisioned school districts of 100,000, like DeKalb, or 175,000, like Gwinnett,” he said.
Meanwhile, MARTA is asking lawmakers to designate half of a proposed 1-cent transportation sales tax in counties where the transit system operates to pay for future expansion of MARTA train lines. MARTA officials say the tax, which would last for 42 years, is the only way they can raise the billions of dollars needed to extend the lines into northern Fulton County and south DeKalb County.
But some lawmakers aren’t so keen on the new tax. Millar says most local Republican lawmakers oppose the idea. Millar and Taylor argue the state should pay part of the cost of MARTA’s expansion and not rely only on taxpayers in counties MARTA serves directly. “I’m all in for this expansion. It depends on who pays for it,” said Taylor, who chairs the legislative MARTA oversight committee called MARTOC. “It’s a state asset,” he said. “Let’s have the state get some skin in the game.”
Millar agreed: “In DeKalb and Fulton, a lot of us think we’ve done more than our fair share,” he said. “[MARTA’s] not just for people living in DeKalb and Fulton. … The state needs to get into the game.”
One thing several legislators agreed on was that 2016 will bring a relatively short legislative session. While the March 1 presidential primary may draw a lot of attention, party primaries are scheduled for May 24 this year and lawmakers will want to get back to their own campaigns as quickly as they can, they argue.
“It’s going to be a fast session because it’s an election year,” Wilkinson said. “It’ll be a much faster-paced session. A lot of people will be anxious to get out and to start campaigning.”
So you can ignore the legislative nonsense. It’ll be over soon.