Dec 9, 2019
Georgia 2020 Legislative Session Preview
When the 236 members of the Georgia General Assembly convene on January 13 for the final year of the 2019-2020 biennial session, several issues will compete for their attention before turning their full focus toward the 2020 elections.
Budget & Income Tax
The biggest issue facing lawmakers will be adopting a balanced state budget for FY2021. As the only piece of legislation the General Assembly is constitutional required to pass each session, the budget always takes center stage but it will have an additional spotlight in 2020. Despite coming out of a strong fiscal year in 2019, monthly and fiscal year revenue collections through November have lagged behind recent fiscal years in the first five months of FY2020.
Maintaining campaign promises to reduce government spending and increase teacher pay, Governor Brian Kemp instructed many state agencies in August to reduce spending in the current 2020 Fiscal Year by 4 percent and to identify 6 percent reductions for the upcoming 2021 Fiscal Year. The reductions also are a preemptive measure against the threat of a possible recession. The preemptive burden, however, will fall mostly on the state’s smaller agencies. Three-fourths of state spending is currently exempt from the directive, including funding for K-12 and higher education, Medicaid, and transportation infrastructure.
In 2018, the legislature voted to reduce the state income tax rate by .25 percent, which provides one explanation for the downward revenue trend. In January, lawmakers will once again consider reducing income tax another quarter percent. More so than in 2018, they also will have to weigh the impact of election-year tax reductions against the state’s ability to continue providing services with less revenue.
Both the House and Senate held committee hearings during the interim on the topic of gaming. While the issue has been one lingering around the Capitol for years, discussions began in earnest this year after the Governor’s budget instructions accelerated the need for additional revenue streams. If legislators move forward with gaming legislation this year, they will have to answer two big questions. The first is what types of gaming to allow. The current debate ranges from authorizing sports betting as part of a limited expansion; to allowing the full spectrum of casinos and horseracing; or something in between. The second question is whether the State’s 1992 constitutional amendment creating the Georgia Lottery is sufficiently broad to allow these types of gaming or whether a new public referendum and constitutional amendment is necessary. The answer to the first question will largely depend on the constitutional determination.
Vaping and Ethylene Oxide Emissions
Two other issues that have been a hot topic during the off-session may also emerge for legislative consideration in January. In the wake of a national crisis associated with e-cigarettes and vaping, Georgia legislators are likely to seek ways to curb the use and future impact of these items. Legislators also are likely to see legislation related to the safety and regulation of ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions. Two medical device sterilization facilities in Georgia have been under recent scrutiny from the public and state officials for the perceived increase in health risks due to their EtO emissions. The temporary shutdown of two plants in Georgia and the permanent shuttering of a plant in Illinois for similar reasons also creates larger questions about the health implications from a potential shortage of sterilized medical devices.
As one of the state’s largest appropriations, education will be an issue at the forefront of budget discussions. In 2019, teachers across Georgia received a $3,000 pay raise as an installment of the larger campaign promise of first term Governor Brian Kemp. Entering his second legislative session, the Governor remains committed to his promise of teacher pay raises; however, lagging revenue collections may stall the remaining $2,000 pay raise. The Governor also has reiterated his commitment to fully funding the state’s education formula, which the state began doing a couple years ago despite the formula’s adoption in the 1980s. One place lawmakers will look to for budget savings is its dual enrollment program. The popular program currently lacks established goals and parameters, which has resulted in the cost of the program growing by 350% between 2014 and 2018. Other education-related issues that may emerge during session outside of the budget include, K-12 vouchers, grading public school performance, and removing barriers to higher education access.
Additional issues that may emerge during the 40-legislative day session include regulating online notaries and reducing maternal mortality rates.