ATLANTA — The countdown for the 2020 legislative session is on, with lawmakers gearing up for a new year.
In between sessions, the Georgia news cycle was dominated by the state's new voting machines, the Secretary of State's voter purges, Gov. Brian Kemp's surprise Senate pick of businesswoman Kelly Loeffler and visits to Atlanta by the president and Democratic presidential candidates. Just this month, President Donald Trump became the third president in the nation's history to be impeached by the House.
But state lawmakers are poised to tackle Georgia issues — the state budget, health care and women's issues are among the top legislative topics of interest.
Funding for all aspects of government remains in the air. Kemp ordered state agencies to cut 4% from their budgets this fiscal year, followed by 6% next year — his economists warn it is a wise while the state’s economy leans closer to a recession.
Lawmakers raised concerns that layoffs, job freezes and furloughs will have negative impacts on state government but they are necessary to comply with the governor's cost-cutting mandate.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he is keeping a close eye on state budget decisions.
Lawmakers worry the state’s budget cuts will prevent legislation from moving forward that requires funding.
State Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, said he has been working on a bill to fund a pilot program for accountability courts for domestic violence that he will introduce in the next session — the governor’s budget cuts being the only setback.
"We've been working on that over the summer with the chairman of the judiciary committee, Jesse Stone," he said. "The only potential roadblock is the governor's budget cuts and finding the funding."
District 173 state Rep. Darlene Taylor, who serves on the House appropriations committee, said the 2020 session will prove a challenge after a fall meeting where members discussed the importance of prioritizing the budget allocations to where the funds are most needed.
“The budget is one of the most important pieces of legislation,” she said. “The governor has indicated that revenues are down, which means there is going to be less money in the state coffers to spend. Most agencies and departments have made or are making adjustments to their budget requests."
Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, vice chair of the appropriations committee, said he is gearing up for budget discussions, too.
“As vice chair of appropriations, the budget is my main concentration now and in a fairly flat Georgia revenue stream we’re looking at our state budget,” he said, “making sure that we’ll continue to look after the citizens of this great state in a particularly trying revenue environment.”
Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, said the state budget will most likely be the biggest focus.
“We’re being told by the economists that there’s a 50/50 chance that we may go into a mild recession in late 2020 or early 2021," Watson said. "Our state budget grows no matter what we do as a state from a budget standpoint.”
After Gov. Brian Kemp released his health-care waiver proposals — dodging full Medicaid expansion with a Georgia Access waiver and creating a new state reinsurance program called Georgia Pathways — he was met with large criticism.
Democrats have come out starkly against the plans, arguing it costs more and covers fewer Georgians than the state opting for full Medicaid expansion. The party also opposes the work requirement for individuals seeking health coverage under the Medicaid waiver.
The Medicaid waiver addresses residents living under the federal poverty line while the state waiver provides increased private insurance options for people over the poverty line.
House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, said full Medicaid expansion has been and will continue to be the top priority.
“(Medicaid expansion) has been a top priority for us for several sessions,” Trammell told CNHI, “and the fundamental question is why we should leave 600,000 Georgians uncovered who could be covered under the Affordable Health Care Act while we continue to send our federal tax dollars from Georgia to support Medicaid expansion and 36 other states.”
Kemp argued that the Medicaid waiver will help Georgians move out of poverty and the reinsurance program will stabilize volatile costs in the private insurance market and lower premiums
Recently released U.S. Census Bureau data ranked Georgia as the state with the third highest uninsured population in the country – rural hospitals and community health-care providers have expressed their need for assistance in serving uninsured Georgians.
Rural Georgia lawmakers expect the Rural Economic Development Council to work with legislative committees to bring legislation that would increase access to health access in hard-to-reach areas of the state.
Rep. Dexter Sharper, D-Valdosta, said Georgia still needs to cover nearly 500,000 Georgians that are still without insurance. Full Medicaid expansion, he said, would take burden off of local emergency rooms and hospitals serving people who are not covered.
“We really need to still figure out a way to help the uninsured in the whole entire state of Georgia,” Sharper said. “In the meantime, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen with the waivers that the governor is putting together to try and help some of the uninsured, but that’s really going to be just a bandaid on a situation because you’re still going to have several people that are uninsured.”
Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, a physician himself, said health-care appropriations and legislation will present a wide range of state issues.
"I think there’ll be an effort to try to do something with the high cost of prescription drugs," Burke said. "Some of those issues are federal and we can’t do a lot about them, but there are some things the state can do and so we’ll be trying to evaluate those ideas and see if there’s any legislation that needs to be passed to help with prescription drug pricing.”
Trammell told CNHI that House Democrats plan to present legislation to repeal HB481 — the restrictive abortion bill passed last session.
In an interview with CNHI in October, Ralston — while pleased the heartbeat bill passed — told CNHI it is one of the partisan issues that causes the legislature to part dramatically.
“I believe reasonable people can come together and find reasonable solutions if they try hard enough,” Ralston said, “and that’s not asking anybody to put aside their principles or their values. But there are going be those issues that we just disagree on, (abortion) is one of those issues. I hope those are the rare exceptions rather than the rule.”
Pre-filed House legislation already puts focus on abortion services as well as, what some are calling, Georgia's maternal mortality crisis.
In one of the most followed and criticized study committees, a House panel chaired by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, looked at the state's high rates of maternal mortality and the large disparities between white women and women of color.
Taylor served on the committee and said she is proposing key legislation that would include public service announcements to encourage women to seek perinatal care and a provision extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days to 90 days. The legislation also will have a mandate that all hospitals have “crash carts” to treat hemorrhaging and other delivery emergencies available at every hospital.
Trammell said that aside from Medicaid expansion and reproductive rights, other main legislative priorities for House Democrats are “common sense” gun safety bills that are stuck in committee and a push for environmental clean-up related to contamination discovered in Georgia water supplies.
Legislative leaders on working across the aisle
Ralston said he hopes tensions from last legislative session won’t roll into this year.
“We work pretty well in a bipartisan way, but there are issues time to time where we respectfully part company. People have different issues on subjects like human life,” Ralston told CNHI. “I told members of the House, I know it was a very intense debate we had, a very passionate debate, but it was still entitled to be conducted in a civil, respectful way. I think for the most part we succeeded, we had a few bumps in the road on that.”
He said in the end, it’s up to Georgia lawmakers to work together.
Trammell said with it being an election year, he expects some party tension.
“I think that anytime you're in an election year especially in a presidential election year, there are obviously going to be some pressures from time to time that will surface in the legislative session,” Trammell said. “But that said, we remain committed to do the work that Georgians sent us to do, which is to make policy in the best interest of all Georgians.”
When asked if tensions from last session will make an appearance this session, lawmakers ultimately hoped that partisan divides will only come from isolated bills such as abortion or gun control legislation.
But state Sen. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta, said simply: “Oh yeah, you’ve always got that.”
During recess, House and Senate study committees talked Georgia issues — maternal mortality, rural development, felons voting rights and legalizing gambling among the hot-button topics.
Some committees have wrapped up their studies and have issued reports making legislative recommendations.
Lawmakers have recommended multiple changes to Georgia laws, here are just a few:
- A study committee recommended updating seatbelt laws to require rear passengers in passenger vehicles to wear restraints and allowing whether or not a person was wearing a seatbelt as evidence in court cases.
- A study committee looking at agriculture, forestry and landscape workforce availability recommended the General Assembly pass resolutions urging Congress to update guest worker programs and asks the Georgia Department of Labor and Georgia Department of Agriculture create programs to help producers navigate the programs.
- A study committee looking at disparities between white and black K-12 student success recommended updating Georgia’s longtime funding formula to add an “opportunity weight” for schools who serve low-income students.
- A study committee looking at e-scooter use recommended adopting laws for e-scooters — like bicycles — including a three-foot passing law and defining “e-scooters” in statute for future regulation.
- A study committee considering revising felon disenfranchisement laws to allow nonviolent felony offenders to vote directly out of incarceration stunned advocates and decided to recommend the laws remain the same.
Meetings for the many remaining committees have yet to wrap up and final reports have yet to be issued.
This story was updated at 9:55 a.m. on Dec. 30 to reflected Rep. Dexter Sharper saying several people would be uninsured.