Nov 24, 2015
The 2016 Georgia Legislature: Key Policy Issues
The 2016 session of the Georgia General Assembly will be underway in less than two months, and the legislature returns to the second year of a two-year
term with elections on the horizon and a large docket of issues to resolve. Qualifying will likely occur during the session. While few seats are
competitive in the general election, virtually every member of the legislature will be paying attention to the process and looking out for a challenge in
the primary election in their district. This will, of course, shape the policy dynamics of legislative debate.
Functionally, the legislature will continue to have three primary blocks of votes that are fairly similar in size: traditional Republicans, insurgent
Republicans and Democrats. Against this backdrop, the potential for deal-making and negotiation is high, with a strong cooperative leadership style among
the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker. Additionally, Democrats in both chambers have proven adept at exploiting Republican structural divisions to
negotiate incremental progress on their party’s policy priorities. In short, this is a session that will likely be fast due to the pending election
process, but has significant potential for movement on a range of key policy issues.
We continue to see positive news from the state budget, both in terms of short-term cash receipts and the strong long-term credit position of the state
that has resulted from Governor Deal’s conservative approach to financial management. Going into this session, there will be a surplus of funds and it is
highly likely the bulk of that amount will again be pumped into K-12 education funding. Other priorities likely to win funding will be those initiatives
that have strong gubernatorial or leadership support and relatively limited fiscal impact.
Multiple pieces of anticipated legislation deal with the ongoing discussion about retrofitting aging, energy-inefficient structures and how that should be
There will be a very high-profile debate in Georgia this year about amending the Constitution to allow limited casino gaming in the state, likely to help
support the HOPE scholarship. With Georgians increasingly participating in cross-border gaming in neighboring states, there is serious legislative interest
in taking this step.
The national debate on tuition increases and student loans is beginning to echo in Georgia. We do not foresee specific legislation on this topic this year,
but we anticipate more vigorous debate over the subject than has been seen in years past.
A Senate study committee focused this summer on tightening measures to secure data held by state government. It is unclear whether this will result in
legislative or funding recommendations, but it is certain we can anticipate continued focus on improving the state’s underfunded, aging information
technology infrastructure to prevent data breaches. Recent news regarding release of Social Security numbers for millions of Georgia voters will likely
increase focus on this topic.
In what may well become the most discussed issue of the 2016 session, it is appearing increasingly likely a panel appointed by the governor will move
forward with a comprehensive rewrite of the way the state distributes funds for K-12 education. This is an extremely large amount of money and will involve
virtually every stakeholder at the capitol in some way. Our team has been tracking this issue closely and can provide more detailed updates as needed.
Legislation will be introduced this year to redefine the classification of workers as employees or contractors. There appears to be general agreement that
legal change is needed to better protect some workers, but the precise contours of the bill will generate attention given the broad potential economic
Many observers wonder whether it is even possible to take additional steps to expand the availability of firearms in Georgia. That said, there remains a
desire to allow guns on college campuses. We do not anticipate a large fight on this issue this year, but gun issues can be volatile in Georgia due to the
large and active contingent of pro-gun voters.
Healthcare Network Issues
A large off-season debate between insurers and healthcare providers will result in multiple bills next year. These bills will address such issues as
network adequacy, balance billing, rental networks and other topics. Adding to the complexity of this debate, the state itself is now a top healthcare
spender in Georgia, and uses private sector companies to manage much of its spend. Hence, legal changes tend to generate fairly immediate budget impacts,
making the challenge of navigating to a compromise that much harder.
Last year’s session resulted in the adoption of a hotel/motel fee as part of a transportation funding solution. The hospitality industry would like to
repeal that fee. However, the politics of doing so at this time remain very uncertain.
International events will almost certainly result in the introduction of legislation around immigration, law enforcement, and refugee resettlement. The
state role in these issues is limited, but there are areas legislators can address. This often leads to a debate about the balance between law enforcement
and global business connectivity.
Atlanta’s transit system ended the last legislative session without a long-term capital funding solution being incorporated into the transportation bill. A
high-profile legislative package is anticipated this year to make adjustments to the transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST)
structure in the MARTA footprint to enable voters to decide whether to back several projects that will significantly expand the system.
Several business groups have launched a study process that will likely culminate in some kind of recommendations to seek a solution with Centers for
Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia in a way that is politically palatable to the legislature. It is unlikely
that any specifics will emerge in this legislative session, but the process may well lead to 2017 action.
Last year, the legislature created a process for Georgians with a set of specific medical conditions to legally use marijuana derivatives for treatment.
However, there is no process in place to legally produce or obtain the products in Georgia. We anticipate legislation on this topic to be introduced.
Religious Freedom Legislation
One of the most closely watched discussions in 2016 will be a continuation of the 2015 debate over religious freedom legislation. This battle will reopen a
complex set of issues around religious exercise and discrimination.
While no legislative activity on university housing is presently likely, the university system has closed on a first round of privatized housing and will
likely pursue a second round later this year.
Georgia has an outdated system of taxation for communications services. Any discussion of tax reform will likely include this area, since there is general
agreement that change is needed. Also, ongoing issues related to a rewrite of the auto tax and title system several years ago will almost certainly lead to
legislative debate on how vehicle purchases, transfers and leases are taxed.
Legislation has been pre-filed to increase taxes on tobacco products, putting this perennial topic on the legislature’s radar once again.
Looking ahead to the legislative session, please contact any member of the McGuireWoods Consulting team if you would like more detailed information on any
of the above issues or other policy topics in Georgia.
Joshua N. Albert, Vice President
Brad L. Alexander, Senior Vice President and Director
Robert L. Fortson, Senior Vice President
Ashley S. Groome, Senior Vice President
Misty H. Holcomb, Vice President
Eric Johnson, Senior Advisor
Andrew Long, Assistant Vice President
Victor L. Moldovan, Senior Advisor
L. Russell Pennington, Senior Advisor
Michael T. Shelnutt, Senior Vice President
William M. Talmadge, Assistant Vice President