Aug 21, 2014
Georgia Public Policy Update
Education: Common Core Standards
The federal education standards known as the "Common Core" standards are currently in place in Georgia, but they are not without their critics, which include both educators and legislators. Hearings before a joint study committee are currently taking place all over Georgia to give citizens a forum to voice their concerns with these nationalized standards, or alternatively, to praise the implementation of these standards. Parents and educators remain divided over whether Georgia should continue using Common Core to guide curriculum.  In the previous legislative session, legislators voted down a bill that would have allowed the state to pull out of using Common Core standards and return to a set of localized standards. 
Detractors point out that using Common Core standards essentially cedes powers normally reserved for state and local governments to the federal government by allowing it to set standard education goals, baselines and requirements for the state.  Further, critics argue that these standards are clearly not working, given Georgia schools' poor high school graduation rates.  Advocates for adhering to Common Core point out that these standards were not mandated by the federal government but voluntarily adopted in Georgia, and that given the mobility of people, businesses and ideas, adhering to a nationwide standard will prepare Georgia students for life in the digital age. 
An overhaul of the state's overly complicated income tax code continues to weigh on the minds of corporations, individuals and small business owners. Attractive tax policies are one factor that drives corporate decisions on where to place new headquarters, factories and offices. Advocates for reform believe that streamlining the tax code will continue to attract these businesses by making doing business here more economically friendly than in other states throughout the region.
Pro-reform legislators believe that any reforms should not be limited to corporate taxation but must extend to the state's individual income tax rates as well. Georgia currently has one of the highest individual income tax rates in the southeast, and this has a substantial impact on the vast number of smaller businesses that take advantage of "pass-through" taxation by filing under the individual taxation rates.  These small businesses form a substantial part of the engine that drives the state's economy, and simplifying the tax code to benefit them would provide a boost to Georgians and the economy. As legislators seek to cement Georgia's reputation as a pro-business state and continue the trends of attracting new businesses and growing employment numbers, streamlining the tax code is one way to achieve these goals. One possible stumbling block is that the state is still trying to stabilize its revenue streams at or near pre-recession revenue levels and relies on income tax to provide about 50 percent of the state's revenue.  Legislators will need to propose alternative methods of raising revenue in order to make substantial reform a reality. Although broad tax reform may be difficult to push through in one legislative session, the appetite for dialogue and change is there.
Medicaid & Medicaid Expansion
Healthcare is always a hot topic and the upcoming session promises to be no different. Although there will be no immediate expansion of Medicaid in Georgia, after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, legislators are cognizant that expansion is likely a matter of "when" and not "if." Scores of politicians expressed concerns over the added expense the state would be forced to absorb, particularly once any promised federal aid expires, while others continue to advocate for the very real, unmet medical needs of some of the state's poorest citizens and regions. 
Governor Deal expressly stated that the state currently could not afford to expand coverage, and this viewpoint ultimately won out under the Gold Dome.  Lawmakers enacted legislation requiring a legislative act before Medicaid could be expanded and prohibiting the expenditure of state funds in advocating for Medicaid expansion.  Given the focus on healthcare around the nation and in Georgia, this topic will continue to be hotly debated on the floor, and new bills will likely be introduced with the ultimate endgame of expanding Medicaid. Expect legislators to examine different models of care to determine which, if any, will be beneficial to the state.
Transportation & Infrastructure Issues
Georgians are beginning to face the harsh reality that the state lags behind other states with regard to funding for roads and infrastructure, and a House resolution was enacted last year to begin searching for answers to these complex issues. HR 1573 was enacted during the previous legislative session for the purpose of creating a joint study committee to discuss the state's transportation and infrastructure needs. 
More specifically, the committee will discuss funding needs to repair roads and bring infrastructure more in line with the rest of the region. The committee will meet for eight days beginning August 5, 2014, and will wrap up its last meeting October 29, 2014.  Georgia currently spends around 60 percent of what other states spend on transportation and infrastructure, and ranked last in per capita spending as of 2011.  The committee will focus on how to modernize Georgia's roads infrastructure in order to continue the state's economic growth. Although recommendations from the committee will not be made until after the final meeting, legislators may be called on to push to make some of these recommendations a reality next session.
Rapid communication is part of corporate and individual life today, whether through email, Twitter, text messages, cloud-based data or intranet instant messaging systems. When lawsuits occur, all electronic data become subject to the discovery process. As the number of electronic messages transmitted increases, so, too, does the cost of discovering this information. Georgia is one of the last states in the nation without uniform e-discovery laws.  Currently, the burden of bearing these costs is on the producing party. Because there is no compelling method to account for the proportioning of these costs between parties, this tool can can be used, sometimes unfairly, to drive both litigation and settlements, particularly when the producing party is a small business or closely held corporation without unlimited resources. 
Some legislators would like to see Georgia join the rest of the nation by adopting legislation that mirrors the federal rules for e-discovery. This legislation would allocate the costs for e-discovery more proportionately than the current model does. In particular, it would mirror FCRP 26, which provides protection from extensive e-discovery litigation costs except when that protection is not deserved.  The Georgia Chamber of Commerce previously worked with the State Bar of Georgia to come up with a list of recommendations regarding these issues.  However, to this date, no changes to the law have been made, and whether any additional efforts will be made to bring Georgia's practices and procedures more in line with the rest of the nation will be interesting to watch.
For more information, please contact Brad Alexander, Senior Vice President at McGuireWoods Consulting.
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