And So It Begins. Again.

This week’s Courier Herald column:

With the dawn of the new year brings us another 40-day session of the Georgia General Assembly. Some of the process will follow a familiar routine. But there’s always a wrinkle or three to keep things fresh.

This will be the second time in recent history that qualifying for legislators will occur during session, with primaries for state and local offices to be held in May. In order for those who will stand for re-election to return to their districts and campaign (as well as be able to raise money – something prohibited when the legislature is in session), few are expecting the session to extend past the end of March.

As a bonus, Georgia will host a presidential preference primary about the time the legislature hits high gear. Presidential politics – and highly charged partisan rhetoric – will dominate the political news cycle this year. That doesn’t mean that this will be a “do nothing” legislative session. It just means that you may have to work harder to find out how legislation of substance is moving.

Education will take up a good bit of the legislative energy over the next three months. The Governor’s Commission on Education Reform has released eighty some-odd pages of recommendations to improve the return on investment state taxpayers make on K-12 students. The suggestions regarding funding reform have garnered the most headlines and perhaps signal one of the larger fights of the session.

Teachers’ groups have thrown down the gauntlet over a proposal for merit based pay. The actual recommendation by the reform commission is that the state get out of the business of setting teacher pay altogether. Local school boards would set teacher pay scales, which would include merit pay as some factor. The amount or percentage of their salary as well as how merit would be judged are not included in the recommendation and presumably would be completely up to the district.

The current funding model is currently based on educational programs offered by a school district and the tenure of the disrict’s teachers. The recommendation is to move to one based on the needs of the student population being taught. It’s not surprising that when moving from a bureaucrat-centered model to a student-centered model, some within the bureaucracy would fight any change. The key to successful passage is getting rank and file teachers to embrace what is in the bill – and understand what is not.

Higher education also will be in focus as a constitutional amendment to allow full-scale gaming will be debated. On the table is a significant additional contribution to the HOPE scholarship fund. At issue remains some resistance to casinos in general, as well as some legislators’ wish for more control over the Board of Regents. If Regents are willing to bring reforms to the table the path to passage becomes easier.

Transportation was a primary focus of the 2015 session. Some will want to tinker with last year’s HB 170 that provided almost $1 Billion in new funds for GDOT. Expect this to end only as rhetoric rather than changes to the funding formula this year.

What is expected is more of a “vision statement” from the legislature on how to focus existing revenues toward a statewide freight network. The volume of truck traffic moving through the state of Georgia – and how to divert it away from Atlanta – will be a major focus.

Atlanta’s traffic congestion and mobility will be addressed through additional attempts at local taxation/referendums. T-SPLOSTs have been made more flexible so that individual counties may do their own or join with one or more others. Fulton County is deciding on multiple proposals for roads and/or rail.

Neighboring counties should pay attention. If Fulton – with the largest tax base in the state – decides to go it alone, then the ability to improve East-West mobility in the dense and growing northern Atlanta suburbs is set back a decade or more. Fulton, after all, is a county that runs decidedly North-South, and it would be expected that most of it’s transportation solutions developed under “local control” would as well.

Medicaid remains a budget sore spot. Like all other healthcare costs, Medicaid costs increase each year. But much like Georgia’s transportation expenditures before HB 170, Georgia spends less as a percentage of our budget on Medicaid than do any of our neighboring states. This gap is compounded by the fact that the federal government then matches two dollars for every dollar Georgia pays for indigent care.

Georgia’s Medicaid funding structure is affecting the entire backbone of Georgia’s healthcare system. The presidential election will likely allow for an “extended debate” on the issue without a permanent resolution this year.

Along the way we’ll have many headlines about cultivating medical marijuana in Georgia (which faces an uphill battle over threat of veto), religious freedom (would pass with clear non-discrimination language, likely dead otherwise), and an effort to try and turn Georgia’s “English only” law into a constitutional amendment.

Above all else, it is an election year. This means not every bill that is debated is designed to pass. Some are designed to generate headlines as an alternative to fix actual issues or address actual problems. That, for some, is all in the routine.

14 comments

  1. Three Jack says:

    “The volume of truck traffic moving through the state of Georgia – and how to divert it away from Atlanta – will be a major focus.”

    Northern Arc was one way to divert, but Perdueless killed it as a favor to rich N. Fulton voters. It would have been completed 2011/2012 and in full operation by now. Imagine how much better we would be if so many of those trucks forced to use 75/285 & state highways like 20/92 etc. had a viable alternative. Not sure what can be done now because any political move to re-visit a northern e/w roadway will surely be met w/well funded opposition like before.

    • Charlie says:

      The Georgia Transportation Alliance has made this one of their top priorities, and will be doing a tour of the state this week to discuss some of the ideas. I’ll join them on a few stops starting tomorrow afternoon in Columbus. The short answer is to draw the circle a bit wider. And figure out how to move as much of the container traffic via rail and as much petroleum and nat gas via pipeline as possible.

      The Northern Arc itself was as much about personal/regional mobility as it was for long haul truck traffic. That’s the harder, and more expensive solution.

      • Three Jack says:

        Whatever can be done to reduce truck traffic will be key to addressing gridlock. Good luck with the state tour, hope y’all come up with some viable ideas.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Unfortunately the fraction of freight tonnages moving intrastate, interstate and through Georgia by rail are all projected to continue to shrink relative to highways for the forseeable future. Should be expect different when hotel taxes are used to subsidize trucking?

        The outer perimeter….now much more expensive and/or inferior to what was proposed 20 years ago. There’s not much freight (or through passenger vehicle traffic) moving between I-75 north and I-85 north. An I-85 or better yet an I-75 semi-circle would be required to attract significant through truck traffic. Less than a semi-circle, I think an arc between I-85 north and I-20 west would do best connecting only 3 of 6 Atlanta interstate legs.

        On the bright side we’re a step ahead of Kansas City and its $100M 2.7 mile long streetcar that will begin operating in 2016!

    • Raleigh says:

      The Outer Perimeter, The Northern Arc, or call it what you may, would have helped the truck traffic issue on Ga Highway 20 from Cartersville to Cumming. A limited access highway from I75 to I85 that avoids 285 has been needed for a long time. Lots of trucks travel Highway 20 to Highway 369 to go north to Gainesville or stay on Highway 20 traveling on over to Lawrenceville. Likewise truck coming south on I85 will turn toward I75 and Cobb county.

      Unfortunately what is going to happen is to 4 lane Highway Ga Highway 20 from I75 to GA 400. It will resemble Highway 41 in Cobb County. Mix trucks and car on that kind of road and you’ll get some deadly accidents. The initial group that got Sonny P to kill it was called the “Northern Arc Task Force”. That group has reborn into the Highway 20 Coalition and I’ve had some heated discussion with those folks.

      As far as I know the state will begin buying right of way for the 4 lane in 2017 or early 2018 with construction starting soon after.

      • Three Jack says:

        You’re right about 20 and the increase in accidents. I remember the 1997/8/9(?) EIS done to assess viability of widening Hwy 20 which concluded that it would not only be more costly than the NARC, it would displace families that have lived there for generations, increase accidents and ultimately was not environmentally safe. Not sure how they got around that one in order to begin the process of widening the road which has already begun along some portions.

        Sorry to hear you’re still having to fight w/Anderson and the rest of that uppity bunch from N Fulton. If they hadn’t been successful in swaying Perdueless, the Hwy 20 project which they supported as the alternative back then would not be happening now. Hypocrites.

  2. benevolus says:

    In theory, I suppose the inability for incumbents to campaign much should enhance the chances for challengers.

  3. stopping by says:

    Thanks for these predictions, Charlie. Many of us are hoping it will be a quick session.

    As for the k-12 forecasting, I believe I can shed some light on what’s troubling the teacher groups re: merit pay–Governor Deal’s recent comments regarding positive steps toward merit pay and using objective, rather than subjective measures. Plus, 178 of 180 GA school districts can already reform teacher compensation, including initiating their preferred type of merit pay. So why the need for state-mandated compensation reform? Especially considering the growing teacher shortage and the difficulty attracting and retaining quality veteran teachers to low-performing schools (which typically have lower test scores).

    Most of the teachers I admire are concerned about over-emphasis on student standardized testing, and many parents feel the same. I know I want my own kids taking fewer standardized tests. Dialing down the high stakes of testing in teacher performance evaluations and compensation decisions needs to happen.

  4. John Konop says:

    We cannot fix Medicaid without attacking major drivers of cost increases. Drugs, end of life care and promoting dial a doc care must be on the agenda. Drugs we could fix by allowing people to buy them online from overseas company ie competition. Also we should use VA drug pricing for all government programs, employees and their families ( close to a 60 percent savings). We should require people to fill out a living will, many do not want the care when they are dying….we spend the majority of healthcare on the last 6 months of life. Finally we should use dial a doc to push non emergency the care to drug stores, in trade for them getting the businesses, way cheaper than using emergency rooms.

    • Charlie says:

      Here’s the important point for the Georgia budget discussion:

      “We” can’t do most of the things you just described via the Georgia legislature. We are a price taker, not a market maker. These are all valid points to be debated in Congress. Meanwhile, we have partisans of both stripes playing a war of attrition on the ACA, while the existing program we have in Georgia (Medicaid) remains under-funded based on any metric available, including percentage of state budget as compared to any of our neighboring states (none of which have expanded Medicaid).

  5. gt7348b says:

    Charlie – regarding your comment about Fulton going it alone with regards to East-West mobility – why shouldn’t they? Cobb and Gwinnett have done nothing to help East-West mobility with their own SPLOSTs and have instead invested on intra-county connectivity. Why shouldn’t you expect Fulton to do the same?

    It isn’t that I’m opposed to considering the interjurisdictional travel patterns of the region, but to now put the blame on Fulton seems a bit…. unfair. This is why it is a state or regional issues or as another un-named jurisdiction states it – subsidarity. Subsidarity means that decisions should be made at the most lowest level possible of government and in this case it is either a regional agency or the state and since the State of Georgia has abdicated its responsibility, don’t blame Fulton County since Gwinnett and Cobb have done the same with regards with regards to interjurisdictional travel around North Fulton.

    • gt7348b says:

      Additionally, the law only allows the funds raised through the HB170 legislation allows the funds to be spent within the impacted county, so even if Fulton wanted to help improve and intercounty project, say Willeo Dr bridge between Fulton and Cobb, they can’t.

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