Your Georgia Desk
Expect expansive proposals from 2015 state legislature
On Jan. 12, the 153rd Georgia General Assembly will convene its first session. Having dominated the 2014 November general elections, Republicans will be in firm control.
Although Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue’s election in 2002 signaled a sea change in Georgia politics, it has not been until this past election cycle that Republican domination became institutional. Until then, Republicans governed with one eye on the immediate past and one eye on the next election constantly fearful that it had all been a fluke.
Certainly, when Republicans gained control following Perdue’s victory, there was quick action on tort reform with its far reaching implications. Yet, Republicans knew that the courts would nibble much of it away and they would be unable (or unwilling) to take it on again.
Since then, “Go Fish” became the legacy legislation for Perdue. Beneath the political radar, Gov. NathanDeal focused on criminal justice reform in his first term. While certainly a dramatic and important change in the way Georgia addresses criminal justice, the changes kept their distance from the kinds of hot-button issues that create division with the Republican Party or provide causes celeb res for Democrats to energize their base.
But now, with Gov. Deal’s term limited, and huge majorities in the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate, watch for Republicans to govern this year from a much firmer foothold than at any time since taking control over a decade ago. As a result, Georgia voters can expect more expansive proposals with longer-term implications than at any time since Democrats were in control.
Of course, with big decisions comes big risks. As a result, 2015 will be the year for Gov. Deal and the Georgia General Assembly will use real political capital and take serious political risk. Some eggs will get broken.
First and foremost, watch for transportation to take center stage. The politics of transportation is fraught with challenge and risk. There are a multitude of questions with no easy answers, and the problem gets worse every year.
Georgians, especially those living in metropolitan Atlanta, agree that traffic has reached critical mass. The isolated tweaks such as toll lanes, ramp traffic lights, and HOV lanes have barely made a dent in traffic woes.
The truth is that the patience of Georgia commuters has grown thin and the options for coping with Georgia’s and Atlanta’s continued growth only get worse. Unless solved, existing transportation woes threaten whatever hopes Georgia may have for continued economic growth. The existing infrastructure simply will not support it.
The problem is that not only is Georgia’s transportation system itself in need of repair but so is its system for actually addressing transportation. As the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal approaches, Georgia’s efforts at meaningful transportation reform have been lost in yet another governmental bureaucracy focused more on survival than solutions.
When meaningful change does come, every constituency with an economic or political interest in the current system’s continuation will undoubtedly come out of the woodwork. Worse yet, every constituency with an economic or political constituency eager for another government project in its backyard will stand up.
And then, there is the price tag. Unlike the federal government, which can just spend more money, Georgia is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget. To do what needs to be done will cost money and that will likely translate into a gas tax increase.
The two things that do not mix well are tax increases and the Republican base. Democrats are sure to stoke the flames of division when the fiery debate over any tax increase begins.
With all of these dynamics at play, addressing Georgia’s transportation woes during the 2015 legislative session will be like solving a massive Rubik’s Cube in just 40 legislative days. Yet, its time has come.
While not as costly in dollars, ethics reform is certain to be on the agenda for the 2015 legislative session. The troubles of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, formerly known as the State Ethics Commission, dominated much of the last election cycle.
Everyone has a different explanation for why the Commission has experienced such a troubled two years. And everyone seems to agree that it needs to be changed. But that is the extent of agreement.
Gov. Deal’s proposal to prevent political appointees from deciding cases against the politicians who appointed them is a step in the right direction. Common Cause insists that sufficient, independent funding is necessary for any ethics commission to effectively function. But the idea of another government agency insulated from any political accountability, including any budgetary accountability, is for some several steps too far.
Ethics commission reform will come. And, like transportation, it will involve many moving parts, creating political risks that will extend long after this session of the General Assembly has ended.
Beyond these two issues, there will be the typical issues that dominate the General Assembly, including the always tricky budget. Education will be the biggest winner when it is all done with new resources aimed at locking in the trend that started with the last session.
Legislators will earn their pay during the 2015 Georgia General Assembly session.