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Saturday, January 11, 2014 - 8:01pm

State Lawmakers Want A Shorter Session, But Have A Lot On Their Plates

Don’t blink. Because you might just miss Georgia’s 2014 legislative session.

Lawmakers return to the state Capitol today. And everyone from Gov. Nathan Deal down to the cleaning crew who keep the Capitol looking spiffy say it will be a short legislative session.

Why? Well if you’re an elected official in Georgia, you can’t hit the campaign trail and stock the war chest while you’re working under the Gold Dome. And this being an election year (Oh hadn’t you heard?), lawmakers are looking to speed through the session. They might even be done by mid-March.

In fact, lawmakers may even work five-day weeks this session.

“I think this will be the shortest session since the 1980s,” said Tom Crawford with the Georgia Report, an online political digest.

The state legislative session lasts 40 working days each year. But lawmakers can string those days out over as long or as short a period as they want to.

Early Primary, Early Exit

What’s different this year is that primary elections will take place in May, instead of July. And Crawford says the quickie session might come at the expense of, ahem, legislating.

“There’s less time to take up any kind of bill that might be controversial, because you don’t want to get bogged down into a long debate about it,” he said in an interview.

The Republican leadership will likely stick only to the top priorities. In a briefing Thursday, House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said that means passing the budget. He also said he expects gun legislation to make a comeback.

Those favoring fewer gun restrictions will take up their charge again at loosening restrictions. Specifically, they want licensed gun owners to get the green light to carry firearms on college campuses, among other places. A bill almost passed last year, and Ralston said he intends to make it a priority this year.

“I was very proud of the bill that the House of Representatives passed last session,” he told reporters last week. “I'm hoping that our colleagues over on the other side of the Capitol will sit back down and take a look at that, that we can sort of get the special interests out of the way on that, and come down to – it's really kind of a simple thing at the end of the day and this is about making sure that we do everything possible to protect and expand the rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment."

The Democrats who are the minority party can’t really go on the offense. They simply don’t have enough power to get much legislation passed. But they’re planning a very active defense.

Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat and the House minority leader, said lawmakers need to take something like the Hippocratic Oath. Here's how she put it:

Dems Aim To Check GOP Power

“I see this session as a ‘first: do no harm’ session. I think it’s critical that we not exacerbate problems,” she said.

By way of example, she recalled the state’s 2011 immigration bill, parts of which have been struck down by the courts.

Abrams said her party will aim to keep the GOP in check, considering its overwhelming majority in both houses.

And guess what? That means standing up for the Affordable Care Act. Again. Conservative lawmakers have filed a bill blocking its implementation. Abrams said Democrats plan to continue an ongoing campaign to educate Georgians on what they consider to be the law’s benefits.

“The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land and there’s no state legislation that can undo the federal mandate that was upheld by the Supreme Court,” she said.

While the Democrats may not have a long list of bills they plan to file, they return to the Capitol with renewed strength for the first time in years, according to one longtime political observer.

Speaking at a policy conference in Atlanta Wednesday, Jay Bookman, a left-leaning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said that will change the tenor of the session.

Republicans ‘Looking Over Their Shoulders’?

As an example, he cited the candidacy of state Senator Jason Carter, a Decatur Democrat, who has emerged as a credible challenger to Gov. Nathan Deal.

“Georgia isn't now a two-party state,” he told the audience. “It may eventually become a two-party state. But for the first time, Republicans will be looking over their shoulders at the Democrats and I think that will have an effect on what happens at the Legislature, what bills are proposed, how hard they get pushed, that kind of thing."

To be sure, Democrats hold no statewide offices, and the state party has faced a series of financial and leadership problems in the past few years. But Bookman said the party is beginning to stir, and that has some Republicans worried.

Now you may be thinking, if the lawmakers are looking for such a quick exit, how will they fill their days? One answer includes their tradition of starting each day with plenty of non-essential business like honoring notable Georgians, including the “doctor of the day.”

In fact, the first vote lawmakers are likely to take up involves moving the primary elections from July to May. That way, federal and state primaries will take place on the same day.

And once that passes, lawmakers will find time to debate other issues during the session.

For example, Republicans will attempt to reform civil forfeiture laws. They want to rein in existing laws that allow police and other law enforcement agencies to seize property and cash from Georgians who haven’t actually been convicted of anything.

“I think we’ve got a good chance to get it through this time,” Representative Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, told GPB.

Budget ‘A Very Political Document’

And if they do nothing else, the legislators will pass a balanced budget. It’s the only thing they have to do, per the Georgia constitution.

Yet some warn with the severity of the problems facing the state, even something as basic as passing the budget could become a thorny issue.

“The budget is a very political document,” said Neill Herring, a Jesup-based lobbyist who’s represented a host of groups at the Capitol over the past 30 years. “And they’ve tried to limit its political effect by making it small.”

And even though it’s an election year, no one told that to the Real Life Problems department. So, for example, some of Georgia’s largest school districts are broke. And many school officials point the finger at how the state funds K-12 education.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said lawmakers will begin to consider reforming the formula used to allocate school funding. It’s something called Quality Basic Education, or QBE. But they probably won’t pass anything this session.

One of the biggest problems is simply this: the state doesn’t actually allocate the amount of money the formula dictates. Surprised? I was. And here’s the Governor's take on why:

“Not fully funding QBE is a complaint that has been in existence since it was first put in place in1985,” Deal said. “It is a standard that’s unrealistic in light of revenues and if it’s been unrealistic in light of revenues over that long a period of time, I believe it’s a clear indication it’s something that should be re-evaluated. And that is something we will undertake between now and the 2015 legislative session.”

But as much as the school funding problem begs to be solved, Herring, the lobbyist, says an even bigger issue in 2014 could be the closure of rural hospitals.

Threat of More Hospital Closures Hovers

“Three have closed and there are 15 to 18 more hanging fire,” he warned. “And as those closures start it’s going to be like a rolling drumbeat in the distance getting closer.”

Democrat Abrams calls that a self-inflicted wound because Gov. Deal has thus far refused to expand Medicaid. Were he to accept an expansion, the federal government would initially cover the cost of new Medicaid patients as part of the healthcare law.

The Medicaid debate will play a role in the session. And some observers even predict Gov. Deal will eventually be forced to expand the program. But no one expects that to happen before the May primaries, if at all. And at that point, the session will be a distant memory.