REPORT FROM THE CAPITOL
with Representative Rick Jasperse
The Legislative session will be underway when you read this. I thought you might like to see the top issues and the variety of issues that will or could be addressed this year.
It would be easy to say to expect fireworks at the Capitol.
This session may see a new fireworks bill. Last year, the legislature expanded fireworks sales in Georgia. We all enjoyed the freedom to buy and celebrate, but some areas of the State don't appreciate it as much as others. Don't expect a drastic change, but a little more local control is in the works.
But the most fireworks may be around the religious freedom bill – a concept that has packed Capitol committee rooms for two years. Backers say it would protect individuals from being compelled to violate their own religious beliefs. Critics say it's an anti-gay bill – that would hinder Georgia's effort to lure new businesses here.
We expect conservative presidential and congressional politics to shape some of the debate. Georgia's March 1 Presidential primary will fall midway into the legislative session, and there will be an open congressional seat folks will be working hard to get.
Other bills will sound like a replay of last year. Backers of medical marijuana oil want the state to allow limited cultivation and production in Georgia. Law enforcement and Gov. Deal are opposed. There will be a lot of debate around this, and by the time it gets to the end will look different than it does now.
Craft brewers – and many legislators – say they need to revisit a bill that passed last year – because the State Revenue Department won't let craft brewers do what they thought last year’s bill allowed. Brewers wanted to be able to sell take-home cans and bottles at the brewery. This area of the economy has created a lot of jobs and tourism all across the state.
Some legislative leaders have also hinted at another pass at transportation on the heels of 2014's landmark bill to fund transportation projects. There may be changes to HB170.
House Speaker David Ralston is among the Republican leaders who have made comments that suggest a potential thaw in the State's icy relationship with regional transportation provider MARTA.
There is also proposed Pastor Protection legislation that would allow clergy members to refuse to perform marriages for gay and lesbian couples if against their beliefs. Probate judges would still have to do it.
There will be 2nd Amendment bills that will restore rights that were lost in the past. Campus Carry by license holders and reducing the number of gun free zones in the state will be looked at carefully.
Teacher Merit Pay and School Funding and other recommendations that Governor Deal’s study committee have developed over the past year will get me the most emails and calls. My daughter, Elizabeth, an English teacher, has been communicating with me at length about this. We haven’t seen any bills from the governor, so it is hard to comment on what will be debated.
The Budget is always an issue that is complex and competitive between the House and the Senate; we will spend the entire session working on it. Going into this session, there will be a surplus of funds due to our improving economy, and it is highly likely the bulk of that amount will again be pumped into K-12 education funding. Medicaid and necessary spending will take up most of the funds. Looking forward to see what Governor Deal is proposing next week.
Tax Reform will be looked at in the form of the “Take Home More Pay” bill. This would rearrange taxes so that the State income tax would decrease. But the tax dollars will have to come from somewhere…..State sales tax?, maybe on food?, And others?
Drivers and cell phones and drunk driving are still an issue. We all know it. One out of 4 who are killed on our roads are due to drunk driving. The trend is up for more wrecks, many due to cell phone use. I have heard of stiffer penalties being looked at to curb this.
Some are working to include University employees who act as Lobbyists to register and to having them report spending and gifts to legislators.
The Governor’s election is looming two years from now, and there will be people making moves to be a statewide presence so they will be a front runner for the job in a few years. Unusual bills and speeches will be given for consideration.
Immigrant resettlement will be discussed and debated as the Federal power over the State is going over what most Georgians want. Solutions will be sought to push back the over-reach of the Federal government in this area.
Casino gambling: There will be a very high-profile debate in Georgia this year about amending the State Constitution to allow limited casino gaming in the state, likely to help support the HOPE scholarship. Key issue is that the Board of Regents must be held in check on tuition increases, as they will adsorb all money raised in this.
College Affordability: The national debate on tuition increases and student loans is beginning to echo in Georgia. I anticipate more vigorous debate over the subject than has been seen in years past.
Tobacco: Legislation has been pre-filed to increase taxes on tobacco products, putting this perennial topic on the legislature’s radar once again. The extra money could be used for tax relief for some and for funding health care for others.
I was recently appointed to be a Committee Chairman. As Chairman of the Special Rules committee, I will join the Leadership group in the House. It is quite an honor to be there.
When I listed this group of possible bills, I didn't do them in any order or priority. As the session gets going, know that any Legislator can create and drop a bill for consideration no matter what it is about. Georgia is a very diverse state with lots of ideas and passions. Not all bills will pass if introduced. Last year about 1600 bills were introduced and 312 passed both the House and the Senate and were signed by the Governor.
Please say a prayer for all of us in the Legislature as we travel across the state going to the Capitol for the next few months. Pray for our families and our State and Country.
Thank you for allowing me to be your Representative.