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Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 12:48pm

This Session Or Next: Lawmakers Previewing Bills For Later

Lawmakers are completing the first full week of the session Friday and they've been pretty darn busy their first few days back at the Gold Dome.

Maybe that's because they're really working two sessions: the current one -- which will be too brief, many say, to really do any substantial legislation -- and the next session, which won't begin until 2015.

Walking around the halls of the Capitol and talking to lawmakers, lobbyists and others, your GPB News Now correspondent hears one thing over and over again:

"Oh no, that won't happen this session but we're getting ready for next session."

Wow, they're already getting ready for the next session. Are these folks overachievers? Well, maybe more like pragmatists.

As we've reported several times, the session will likely wrap up by mid-March to accommodate an early primary election. And that means so many of the issues dominating discussions on both sides of the aisle have little chance of passing.

There's too little time and if there's a whiff of controversy, no political will. So lawmakers are stockpiling issues for next session, after the election.

A Full Agenda - for 2015

So what could wind up getting pushed to next session? It's early yet but we can already compile a short list of possibilities:

Tort reform: There's a bill that would use the worker's compensation system as a model for medical malpractice reform. But it would force patients to waive their rights to trial, so that's a bit of a sticking point. Sen. Renee Unterman, the Loganville Republican who chairs the committee reviewing the proposal, told GPB she doubts the bill will be ready for this session.

School funding overhaul (that is, if it happens at all): No one seems to think the current formula, known as Quality Basic Education, is working. But overhauling it seems almost as difficult as trying to introduce a 51st state. So Gov. Deal has indicated it might be something to start THINKING about now, in preparation for - guess when - next session.

Gun legislation: The people who oppose expanding gun rights say the session will just be too brief to quell the inevitable hue and cry surrounding any legislation regarding where you can carry firearms in Georgia. And even gun advocates admit the fans of the Second Amendment are a diverse group that may not back all of the compromises required to gain passage.

So it sounds like we will all be busy like bees next year. But let's get back to this year. And let's tackle the most important document produced each session: the budget.

Governor, Can You Spare A Dime?

Gov. Deal unveiled the 2014-2015 fiscal budget. What's getting all of the attention is the projected surplus. Georgia actually has a few dimes to spend. But they won't go far.

Deal has proposed spending $20.8 billion to fund the state's operations in the 2015 fiscal year. That's a 3 percent increase, and it includes a surplus of more than $900 million. It also earmarks a $547 million boost to education funds.

Democratic gubernatorial challenger Jason Carter pointed out Wednesday that the technical college system has lost more than 40,000 students in the past two years, following reductions and changes Deal and other lawmakers made to the state scholarship program. It's a charge the state Senator from Decatur has made before.

And not surprising, the 2015 budget increases aid to Georgians attending technical colleges. For example, Deal has also proposed offering the Zell Miller scholarships to technical college students. Right now, only those enrolled in four-year schools are eligible. That amounts to a free education for students who keep a 3.5 grade point average or higher. Deal is also calling for $10 million in low-interest loans for the same group.

Other areas of the state budget are also seeing increases, after years of austerity cuts. For example, the Division of Family and Children Services will have enough money to hire 200 new workers. Many say that largely reflects that two children have died in state custody rather than any largess.

A New Budget Proposal for Education?

Senate Democrats have another idea for funding education. Thursday, Jason Carter and other Senate Democrats announced the filing of a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the state to have a completely separate budget for education.

Carter announced his plan for the proposal in his response to Nathan Deal’s State of the State address on Wednesday when he called the state’s current education funding a “shell game.”

“My proposal is simple. Every year, the legislature would be forced to consider the state budget in two parts. The first part would be our budget for education. That’s our seed corn; our investment in the future. Then once the education budget has been approved, we move on to funding the rest of the government. And we balance the budget every year as we are required to do, “ said Carter.

However, Gov. Deal dismissed the idea of a separate budget for schools, calling the Democrats’ plan a “kind of gimmick.”

“We need to balance the need of every state,” said Deal. We think we have done a good job of balancing the needs of education.”

Budget Is Still Lean, Despite Surplus

And Georgia's public sector is far from flush. At a recent policy conference, AJC columnist Jay Bookman said state agencies are in ragged shape after a dozen years of conservative leadership.

"They've slashed and slashed for years now," he said. "Some areas of state government are severely underfunded."

He added, "We're starving ourselves."

Last year, the heads of many state agencies essentially cried poverty back to the same lawmakers who had made up their departments' budgets. Judging from the early budget hearings, this year won't be a whole lot different, even if there's a bit more to spend.

Hank Huckaby, Chancellor of the University System of Georgia, has tried to hold the line on tuition increases. But despite his efforts, many students have dropped out of state colleges and universities. And he told lawmakers Wednesday that when he talks to students who are planning to drop out, they often cite a shortfall of a few hundred dollars.

And that's not all that different from what he told lawmakers last year. Georgians are still struggling to afford higher education and it's unclear if anything's changed in the past year.

Looking Ahead To Week Two

Lawmakers will rest on Monday in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but they will be back in action next week. The budget will continue to be a top priority but lawmakers will also begin to look at some of the bills that will shape the session.

For example, backers of legislation to loosen gun restrictions will likely move forward with their proposal.

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