General Assembly carpenter Steven Eakin works on an original desk dating back to the 1889 construction of the Georgia State Capitol as he makes repairs on the House Floor in preparation to the start of the year’s legislative session, in Atlanta. A more Republican General Assembly will convene in mid-January facing a familiar challenge: How to absorb increasing health care costs in a state budget continually short on revenue. Medicaid questions, specifically the renewal of an expiring tax on hospitals’ patient revenue, will dominate the session. But there’s no shortage of intrigue on education policy, gun laws in the wake of a Connecticut shooting, and the political structure of a state Senate that looks to emerge from dysfunction.
ATLANTA -- The Georgia Legislature will convene Monday with the state budget, possible ethics legislation and debate on gun control expected to be contentious topics of discussion.
The state's lawmakers will be looking at a $300 million budget shortfall and will also be facing an expiring hospital "bed tax" that pumps $650 million in state and federal money into the budget.
Should the tax expire with no plan in place to fill the gap, that shortfall could approach $1 billion.
"(Gov. Nathan Deal) has instructed that we have 3 percent across-the-board cuts in every area but education," Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, said. "We'll have a better idea of what we're dealing with when he gives his 'State of the State' speech next week."
Deal is set to submit his proposed FY 2013-2014 budget and revenue estimate to lawmakers on Thursday.
"We are always concerned with the budget," Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, said. "Concerns are running rampant in Atlanta because we aren't sure what Congress will do, and that will affect us all. It's also a concern because state revenues were up by 9 percent in December and people think we have all this extra money and folks are coming out of the woodwork.
"But there is no extra money, and we've got all these agencies coming up to us saying 'We've got to have this.' It's tough."
Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, said her budget priority this session is taking care of the county's educational institutions.
"I'm going to try and get a fine arts building for Albany State funded and make sure ASU, Albany Tech and Darton are taken care of," Fullerton said. "I also want to make sure that the Dougherty County School System gets to keep the money they need from the budget."
Aside from the budget, possible ethics legislation, specifically placing a $100 cap on gifts lawmakers receive from lobbyists, is gaining traction.
During July's Democratic and Republican primaries, more than 81 percent of the state's voters supported putting some restrictions on gifts in a non-binding ballot referendum.
"Ethics come up every year, but it's different this year because we can't ignore the results of that referendum," Rynders said.
This week a Senate committee discussed the proposed $100 cap, and new rules are expected to come up for a vote when the Senate convenes on Monday.
If enacted, the cap would stand unless the General Assembly introduces its own rules. House Speaker David Ralston has vowed to introduce legislation which would outright ban all gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.
"I'm not really concerned about the ethics situation; it affects those in Metro Atlanta more than is does us," Greene said. "We're not going up there with our hands out. If folks think we'd sell our souls for a meal, well, so be it."
After last month's Connecticut school massacre, another contentious topic that is sure to come up during the session are new gun laws.
"We're going to hear many different proposals ranging from putting more money into school resource officers to allowing certified teachers and administrators to be armed to everything in between," Rynders said. "There will be no shortage of proposals."
"There have already been seven house bills filed on gun legislation," he said. "The problem is that people are getting federal and state legislation mixed up. I've had several people call me and say 'make sure you vote against (U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's) anti-gun legislation.' I politely tell them the Georgia House can't do a thing about that.
"We've got a hodgepodge of legislation, and people suspect that Washington is working against the Second Amendment. It's very scary."
Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, said he thinks the majority of Americans want to see some sort of constraint on firearms such as assault weapons.
"I feel many people want to see restrictions on magazine sizes and weapons that can fire bursts of multiple rounds," Dukes said. "But you have some people, since Connecticut, that have hardened their stance on the right to bear arms.
"However, when peoples' children are placed in harm's way, that touches the hearts of all Georgians and all Americans. I think when we finish this session, we will have come up with some rational and logical legislation."
Fullerton is adamantly opposed to arming teachers and school administrators.
"I don't think there will be any movement in this session," she said. "And I don't think there should be any weapons in our schools except those that belong to law enforcement. I understand people hunt, especially down here, and people need the proper weapons to do it. But I don't think people need assault weapons."
It should be noted that the Georgia House will be even redder this session with Republicans holding a 119-60 majority over their Democratic colleagues. Only Independent Rusty Kidd of Milledgeville's decision not to join the GOP after November's election kept the Republicans from having a two-thirds super majority.