A new era has begun in Atlanta for all of Georgia. Monday officially brought us a new governor, Brian Kemp. The Georgia General Assembly also has many fresh faces as the legislature begins their annual meeting. Chief among them is the new lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, who will guide the Senate along with the President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, of Gainesville. The constant in leadership of the state’s highest three offices will come from House Speaker David Ralston, of Blue Ridge.
With such a significant change in leadership, bold predictions in outcomes between now and sine die are best tempered until everyone has some time to demonstrate how they work together. That said, here’s five predictions for the year:
1. Rural Georgia will receive significantly more attention than before.
While the trend has been toward solving issues unique to rural Georgia for at least a couple of years, the 2018 elections have tilted the balance of power a bit more toward rural Georgia. Gov. Kemp campaigned extensively in parts of the state often ignored in statewide elections, and it’s unlikely his base will be forgotten. Furthermore, the loss of significant Republican seats in suburban Atlanta pushes the GOP caucuses’ power centers into rural areas. One can argue that urban Atlanta has expanded outward and the Atlanta exurbs are now the suburbs, but at least for now, the result is that the majority caucuses in the legislature are decidedly more rural.
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2. The House Rural Development Council will set the early agenda.
The early shift toward a rural Georgia focus was telegraphed by the House’s Rural Development Council, chaired by Appropriations Chairman Terry England and Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell. Powell has since been promoted to Rules chairman, which further emphasizes that the recommendations of the council will receive significant attention. This means we should expect significant legislation on health care reform, including a strong look at Georgia’s Certificate of Need laws that treat hospitals as local monopolies. Other recommendations address rural broadband, the wine industry as agribusiness, rural broadband access, blight control, job tax credits, and regional development authorities.
3. Big spending items may have to wait a year.
Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal raised the state’s revenue estimate twice. The first made it possible to fully fund the state’s QBE education formula. The second, in November, allowed for hurricane relief in southwest Georgia. With the revenue estimate already raised aggressively and an income tax cut kicking in, there’s not as much “extra” on the table to divide up among new initiatives. Budget battles may be more intense than usual.
4. The media wants an intra-GOP battle over guns and religion, and many Republican legislators will be happy to comply.
Nothing provides coveted clicks for political journalists like these two issues, or signs of division within the party in power. With these two issues, reporters get both. A not so subtle reminder to the new folks: Deal isn’t leaving in a revered status because he took the bait on every shiny object issue offered to him via headline. His legacy is that he focused on his own agenda to solve specific problems, and attacked them pragmatically over his eight years in office.
5. Much of the heavy stuff will wait until next year.
We’ll learn a lot over the next 40 business days, as the leaders and rank and file legislators learn how to work with each other. Citizen legislators have a learning curve, and so do new governors and lieutenant governors. With governing, it’s better to do things right than do things quickly. As such, watch for the development of study committees. A lot of the work done this year on major issues may not be done while the legislature is in session. It could be that much of the heavy lifting is done this summer and fall, with signature legislation prepared when we start this process again one year from now.