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Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - 11:17am

Experts Predict ‘Fast And Furious’ Legislative Session Ahead

From the vantage point of Georgia’s top lobbyists, fundraisers and political advisors, the upcoming legislative session will pass in the blink of an eye as state lawmakers race to prepare for re-election campaigns.

That’s because they can’t raise money while serving under the Gold Dome. And that means everyone from Governor Nathan Deal on down is looking for a quick exit to the 40-day session. They’ll also most likely be facing primary elections in May, giving some lawmakers a scant two months to fundraise and campaign.

Experts predict 2014

In a briefing for journalists Tuesday, experts from the Atlanta firm McKenna Long and Aldridge shared insights and predictions for the 2014 General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 13.

“This session is going to be a fast and furious and that’s really because of the primaries being moved from July to May,” said Chuck McMullen, a manager director at McKenna Long and former chief of staff to Georgia’s first Republican Senate Majority leader.

The primary election will be the subject of the first piece of legislation that’s likely to pass. Lawmakers need to move Georgia’s primaries to May to align them with the federal calendar. Leaving them in July would incur extra cost, a risk that’s not likely to sit well with the state’s GOP leadership.

After the primaries, McMullen said the focus will be on discussing and passing a balanced budget and dispensing that budget with any needed local legislation.

There will be discussion of some of the key issues facing the state. For example, lawmakers will likely debate a bill that would take a stab at tort reform by allowing patients to pursue legal action against doctors in a sort of medical small claims court.

Now, there’s even thought among policy makers that lower-income Georgians could benefit from such a system.

“If you make $20,000, no one is going to take your claim,” said Sharon Gay, a partner at McKenna Long and a former Metro Chamber of Commerce executive.

But lawmakers are likely to stick to the bare necessities of governing so that by mid-March, they can wrap up the session and start fundraising.

All eyes on Georgia

The session will take place against the back-drop of two high-profile political races: the 2014 gubernatorial election and the U.S. Senate contest. And both are garnering their share of headlines. Both races provided ample material for McKenna’s experts, many of whom are campaign veterans, to debate the motivation of some candidates and the strategy of others.

“U.S. Senate races are not just state races. They’re national races,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a senior managing director at McKenna Long, and a veteran of the Mitt Romney Presidential campaign. “And the Georgia Senate race is being looked at.”

That’s because in order for the Republicans to gain control of the Senate, they have to retain the seat currently held by GOPer Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring.

A host of candidates on the GOP side are vying for the nomination, including Congressman Jack Kingston (McKenna’s experts give Congressman Paul Broun, who’s espoused a number of controversial stances, little chance of becoming the Republican candidate in the race). Michelle Nunn is so far the only contender for the Democrats. She’s never held political office, but her father was Democratic Senator Sam Nunn.

The gubernatorial race will also figure into the session since Democratic challenger Jason Carter will keep his seat in the Senate while campaigning for Governor. And the session will provide him with a platform – one experts say must use to his advantage.

“He has to have a very successful session,” said Tharon Johnson, who served as campaign manager for Mayor Reed in 2009 and headed up Obama’s campaign in the Southern states. “He has to put forth some bi-partisan bills that he can be a part of and hopefully get passed. That will be very important for his campaign.”

What about the Tea Party?

The loose network of Republican-leaning activist groups successfully lobbied for ethics reform last year. And some Tea Party members have taken aim at the Common Core school curriculum used by more than 40 states, including Georgia (the experts at McKenna Long concurred that Pres. Obama’s few positive comments about the program essentially doomed it to becoming seen as federal over-reaching by the far right even though the states voluntarily adopted the curriculum).

But Tanenblatt doubts their efforts will come to much this session.

“Over the years, there have been extremist elements that have popped up in different forms,” he said. “It’s not a national movement. There are all of these different splinter groups. But if people look at the facts, and you’re able to articulate the facts to people, they [the Tea Party groups] start becoming marginalized and I think some of that is happening right now.”

Looking for big reform? Don't expect much in 2014

Even on something like cutting tax rates, which the Republican leadership likes to tinker with, there won’t be time for any major overhauls. That mean voters will have to wait until 2015 for more substantive proposals on transportation, education and other issues