Education, health care and renewed debate over a “religious liberty” bill are issues likely to be back before the Georgia Legislature this year, Fulton County lawmakers say.
After voters rejected Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District referendum in November, others ways of reforming the state’s education system are expected to be brought up in the 2017 session.
Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Buckhead) said she supports “student-based funding” which allocates money to schools based on a formula that takes into account students’ particular needs.
Beskin said she also plans to keep pushing her proposed legislation to provide tax credits to a person who buys a home and moves into an elementary school district that is in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s districts by performance. Moving people into underpopulated areas will help rid the areas of economic blight, she said, and also help the schools.
Health care is also expected to be a major issue in the 2017 session. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Beskin said legislators will have to have serious discussions about rural hospitals and indigent care.
The nomination of U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Roswell) to become secretary of the federal Health and Human Services department as part of the Trump administration is expected to have an effect at the state Legislature, too, especially on the Fulton County delegation.
The scramble to see who will run to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress if Price vacates the seat is expected to include several state lawmakers, who would then have to resign their seats.
“A lot of the session will be colored and flavored by those running for Tom Price’s seat … and many are in the Legislature,” Beskin said.
“I don’t know what the cascading effect will be. Many may want to get the session over faster so they can campaign. And it’s probably true people will be distracted if they are running for something else. But will this temper what happens this session or not remains to be seen.”
State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) noted there could be problems created for the Fulton County delegation caused by the resignations of state lawmakers who decide to run for the federal office.
“There are five legislators interested and if they do run, they have to resign their seats,” Willard said. “And that results in a major hole in the Fulton County delegation.”
State Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta), whose District 32 includes a part of Sandy Springs, announced Nov. 30 he was running. State Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), whose district also includes a portion of Sandy Springs, is “prayerfully considering” a run for Price’s office. Others on the list of potential candidates whose names have been floated as candidates to succeed Price include state Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) and state Rep. Betty Price (R-Roswell).
The legislators don’t have to resign until after Price resigns and it is expected Price will be confirmed in early February, Willard said. A special election will be called to fill his seat and with the state legislative session expected to end in April, when legislators wanting to run will then have to resign their state seats.
“Half the session we’ll be lacking a full contingency,” Willard said. “And that could be a bit of a problem.”
As lawmakers prepare to return to the Gold Dome in January, Willard said one of the unknowns facing state lawmakers is Medicaid funding. “I hope it certainly can be addressed and we will be waiting to see what Washington will do,” he said.
Willard, sponsor of the legislation to recreate the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said he will be spending much of the upcoming session working on “redoing and revamping” the commission. The judicial watchdog agency will now have appointments made by the Legislature and not the State Bar of Georgia.
Sure to come up in some form for the fourth year in a row is a “religious liberty” bill championed by the evangelical wing of the Republican Party. Last year, Deal vetoed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or House Bill 757, saying the bill invited discrimination.
Beskin, who has been at the center of the “religious freedom” fight while sitting on the House Judiciary Committee, said she welcomes a Donald Trump presidency and a push to move the fight to the federal level.
“People have talked for a long time that Congress should revisit the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” she said, noting Trump and a Republican Congress appear agreeable to take up the issue. “I would appreciate this … because [at the state level] it takes up a disproportionate amount of time and energy.”
House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) agrees, and said during a recent episode of GPB’s “Political Rewind” that it is time for Congress to debate the issue.