Dec 16, 2020
Georgia 2021 Legislative Preview
Members of the Georgia General Assembly will convene on Monday, January 11, 2021 to commence the first year of the two-year biennial session. Members of the legislature will welcome 10 new senators and 27 new representatives to the Capitol during the upcoming session. Although Democrats picked up a few seats in the 2020 elections, Republicans will maintain a comfortable majority in both chambers.
Heading into session, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is whether operations will look like business as usual. Legislators, who already are set to return to the Capitol next summer for a special session on redistricting and reapportionment, hope to avoid a repeat of 2020 when COVID-19 prompted a three-month delay in completing the regular legislative session. Speaker David Ralston has appointed a committee comprised of the Majority and Minority leaders and key House staff to review current session protocols and make recommendations for any changes necessary to ensure session proceeds safely and efficiently. While some adjustments in safety protocol are inevitable, leadership in both chambers hope to follow the regular calendar as closely as possible.
After unexpectedly finding our state at the center of the political universe, election reform is expected to be front and center during the upcoming legislative session. In the wake of a contentious presidential election and two pending run-offs for U.S. Senate, Republican legislators have promised to review the state’s voter registration, absentee ballot, and early voting policies, among others. Interim House and Senate committees tasked with reviewing the election could also formulate specific legislative recommendations. Additionally, the Speaker has promised to propose a constitutional amendment to convert the Secretary of State from an elected position to an appointed position.
Prior to the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers braced for state budget cuts to offset lagging state revenues, which were partially the result of a reduction in the state income tax rate. In 2021, lawmakers will enter into the legislative session prepared to tackle the state budget in the wake of COVID-19. The Governor’s office has instructed agencies to submit net-neutral budgets matching the current fiscal year, although legislators are still expected to make some budget reductions. Revenues through the first five months of the 2021 fiscal year are up by more than $551 million compared to the same period in FY2020. This is welcome news to many Republicans who advocated for Georgia to be one of the first states to relax COVID-19 restrictions.
Gaming is expected to be a hot topic once again during the 2021 session. Efforts to expand gambling beyond the state lottery gain more traction each year but have thus far fallen short of the two-thirds majority necessary for a constitutional amendment. Long viewed as an untapped source of revenue for the state, legislative advocates are confident that this could be the year for success. It is anticipated that the most likely expansion will be into sports betting, but long-time proponents remain equally hopeful for the more lucrative expansion into casinos and horseracing. Ultimately, final approval of any proposed constitutional amendment would be up to Georgia voters.
Significant educational changes prompted by the pandemic and the ubiquitous quest to improve public education are sure to provide lawmakers with the perennial opportunity to consider an array of education-related legislation.
Republican legislators are expected to reintroduce proposals that would allow the use of state funds for private school tuition and expenses. In recent years, unsuccessful legislative proposals would have enabled parents to redirect the use of state funds for their child away from the local school district towards a private school. Gov. Kemp, who has been a vocal proponent of increasing school choice options in Georgia through expansion of the state’s educational scholarship program beyond special needs students, would likely support a proposal that makes its way to his desk.
Earlier this year, legislation was enacted to reduce the number of annual assessments for students in third through twelfth grades. Recent contentious debates between the State School Superintendent, the State Board of Education (SBOE), and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) over student testing and grades during the 2020-2021 school year could spark additional legislation in 2021 around student assessments. The U.S. DOE’s rejection of a pandemic-related request to waive standardized testing requirements in the current school year ignited a public disagreement between the Superintendent and SBOE over how much weight should be given for end-of-course exams towards student grades this year. The State Board ultimately withdrew its proposal for a 10 percent course grade weight to coalesce around the Superintendent’s recommendation of .01 percent.
Freight & Infrastructure
Both the House and Senate were unusually light on interim study committee appointments in 2020, leaving a sparse slate of study committee recommendations expected in the coming legislative session. One exception is the Commission on Freight and Logistics, which wrapped up its second year of study on the state’s infrastructure needs. The Commission is expected to continue its support for a coordinated centralized freight and logistics plan and to propose funding mechanisms to maintain its current infrastructure and meet growing demands. Home to one of the busiest and fastest growing ports in the country, Georgia will require a significant amount of public and private funding to keep pace with its future infrastructure needs.
Two years ago, the General Assembly established the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative to promote and deploy broadband services to underserved areas. In July, the Initiative launched the Georgia Broadband Availability Map to provide site-specific data on the level of accessibility throughout the state. This new data and the need for reliable internet access for students learning from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the spotlight on the lack of universal broadband across the state. Legislators, particularly those in rural areas, may look for additional solutions to address the increasingly urgent need to fill-in the remaining broadband accessibility gaps.