Cobb lawmakers from both parties say the budget will be the biggest issue when the General Assembly convenes for the start of the session on Monday.
Last year, the governor asked state agencies to cut funding, leaving open jobs unfilled, in the face of a projected budget shortfall.
There is another thing Cobb Republicans and Democrats can agree on.
“I don’t think we have a spending problem, I think we have a collection problem” state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, told the MDJ last month, when members of Cobb’s legislative delegation met with the MDJ to discuss the upcoming session. Cobb Democrats agree. But how the state should make up that revenue is another question.
Tippins said the state is giving away too much money in tax credits. Exhibit A: the film industry, which received an estimated $915 million in such credits in 2017 alone.
Democrats, meanwhile, say Republicans’ move to lower the income tax from 6% to 5.75% in 2018 — which cost the state some $500 million — precipitated the budget crunch. Lawmakers are expected to consider another cut to the income tax this session.
“So it’s going to be up to us to decide whether we want to do that or not,” said Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, chair of the county’s legislative delegation. “Hopefully we don’t because we don’t have the money already.”
The crunch will form the basis of other discussions in the Statehouse this year, among them the legalization of casinos and betting on horse racing. Advocates say it would bring much-needed money to the state.
Such a change would require voters’ approval of a constitutional amendment. But lawmakers will have to pass a bill before they can put the question before their constituents.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, and state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, sponsored such bills in 2019. But they have a better chance of mustering support from Cobb’s Democrats than they do its Republicans.
Democrats who recently spoke to the MDJ said they were not opposed to casinos per se and would support their legalization if the bill were carefully written.
“I don’t know if I want to have I-95 between Brunswick and Savannah necessarily look like I-10 when you’re driving along the (Mississippi Gulf) coast,” said Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, before adding she would be open to an arrangement similar to that of Harrah’s in New Orleans or Maryland’s National Harbor.
Cobb Republicans, however, are skeptical of the purported financial windfall and cast gambling as a societal scourge best avoided.
“I think it would be detrimental to our economy and the fabric of the state of Georgia and I’ll vote against it,” Tippins said.
In another cost-cutting effort, Tippins and state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, will take another shot at passing their overhaul of the state’s dual enrollment program.
Dual enrollment is a state program in which high school students can take college-level courses on the state’s dime and, hopefully, finish college and join the workforce earlier than they would otherwise.
Tippins and Reeves filed bills in the state Senate and House that would lower the number of students eligible for dual enrollment so as to rein in its ballooning costs, which have tripled since the program was amended in 2016.
Dual enrollment “has become something it was never intended to become,” Reeves said.
Several of the lawmakers plan on tackling health care-related issues:
♦ State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, wants to end surprise billing, in which patients receive charges they weren’t expecting after a hospital visit, often because the hospital was within their insurance network but the doctor who treated them was not;
♦ State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-east Cobb, chair of the House’s Health and Human Services Committee, has made it a priority to correct the state’s “lack of oversight” of assisted living facilities;
♦ State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Sandy Springs, wants to lower the cost of insulin and expand the period during which Medicaid offers childbirth-related health coverage;
♦ State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-west Cobb, plans to introduce a bill to combat “a growing menace in the state”: transitioning minors to their non-birth gender via sexual reassignment ♦ surgery or the administration of drugs that affect their hormones;
♦ Anulewicz wants to give “mature minors” — 16- and 17-year-olds — the option to get vaccinated without their parents’ approval
Wilkerson said he would like to pass local legislation that would allow county commissioners to give raises to certain county employees without it needing to come before lawmakers for their approval.
“I have no idea if the deputy clerk’s assistant is doing a great job or not,” Wilkerson said. “We need to get out of the business of telling local folks how to spend their money.”
Local officials, meanwhile, have their own list of concerns.
In December, County Chairman Mike Boyce called on the county’s legislative delegation to:
♦ Consider making it more difficult for police officers to jump ship and transfer to another agency only two years after completing their training;
♦ Change legislation that requires the county to advertise a non-rollback of a millage rate as a tax increase;
♦ Increase the number of veterans who qualify for disability-related tax benefits;
♦ Enact a “tenants’ bill of rights”;♦ and
♦ Prohibit county chairmen and chairwomen from holding second jobs.
Cobb lawmakers have made it clear they have no intention of pursuing the last item in the above list of Boyce’s requests, viewing it as politically motivated (Boyce is up for reelection this year).
They are, however, willing to consider legislation that might help the county retain its public safety personnel. County officials have long said they struggle to recruit and retain police officers and firefighters, many of whom get their training in Cobb but leave for greener pastures shortly thereafter.
“In my time in the Legislature, I have focused heavily on public safety issues, and that’s something that I plan to continue doing,” Reeves said in December. “With that in mind, I’m more than happy to look into this issue.”