Georgia’s 2022 legislative session is underway, and it promises to be one of the most consequential in recent years.

After a long period of austerity, Georgia’s budget is flush with cash.

“The bold, conservative agenda I’ve outlined over the last few days prioritizes education, health care, and public safety," Gov. Brian Kemp said in his 2022 State of the State address. "It invests historic levels of resources in our students and educators."

Redistricting has entrenched Republican control of the state House and Senate for much of the next decade, and, in an election year that could flip control of state government, every bill, speech and vote must be viewed through the campaign lens.

“Unfortunately, our governor is choosing to prioritize putting guns in hands over shots in arms, and it is not making Georgia safer," State Sen. Elena Parent (D-Decatur) said in response to Kemp's legislative agenda.

This week, we dive into what to expect at the Gold Dome. 

Before the session began, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan held press conferences about their priorities and talked to my colleague Riley Bunch about what Georgians should expect in this year’s session.

Ralston is the steady hand that guides the 180-member state House. He’s practical, pragmatic and pretty clear about the big topics his chamber will focus on.

"Six months ago, I announced a $50 million budget proposal on two critical public policy issues: public safety and mental health," Ralston told reporters before the session. "My reasoning for these priorities will not surprise you."

Rising violent crime rates, suicide rates and mental health issues are something that the legislature should address, Ralston said, through both budget funding and standalone bills.

Today, he released HB 1013, a 74-page bill that aims to increase access to mental health care.

MORE: Ga. House Speaker Ralston says 'No issue is more important to me this session than mental health'

At the Georgia Chamber’s Eggs and Issues breakfast, he elaborated.

"For too long, our state has ranked among the worst in the nation for the delivery of mental health services," he said. "That’s why, in my $50 million proposal, there is also funding to increase crisis care beds, trained police on de-escalation techniques and expand our accountability court system."

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan faces a tougher task overseeing the 56-member state Senate. He’s not running for reelection, and a good number of his senators are seeking higher office, including several who want his job next year.

"As I think ahead to this next upcoming session, there will certainly be no shortage of issues to talk about and issues to deal with," he said in a pre-session press conference. "I want our office to continue to be a steady hand inside the legislative process to continue to build consensus."

His biggest push is called the LESS Crime Act, which proposes to give Georgians the opportunity to donate dollars directly to local law enforcement and get a tax credit, similar to how the rural hospital tax credit works now.

"These dollars are going to arrive at their local law enforcement agencies through various mechanisms ... to be able to laser-focus those dollars to hire more officers, pay or train them better, or buy better equipment," he said.

Duncan says this also dovetails with plans to boost mental health funding and training to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations with trained professionals.

The lieutenant governor is a strong advocate for expanding Georgia’s role as a hub for technology as well, calling the state “the technology capital of the East Coast.”

"So we’re going to seek additional appropriations ... to help us build out an even more coordinated program to be able to train these teachers and these schools to be able to deliver computer science to the classroom," he said.

And in the midst of a pandemic, Duncan says expanding access and improving health care for Georgians is a bipartisan issue. 

All of those things sound mostly agreeable and un-controversial, right?

Duncan says he’s hopeful this spirit of cooperation continues

"I mean, we passed some really big things over the last three years," he told GPB News. "And the overwhelming majority of what we've passed has been bipartisan stuff."

But it’s an election year. Georgia is bitterly divided after narrowly voting for President Joe Biden and Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. It’s ground zero for false claims about election fraud, battles over voting rights and culture war issues.

This year may also see a lot of attention-grabbing, base-pleasing moves that probably won’t become law, said University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock. 

“Whatever one sees playing out in the legislature probably should step back and say, ‘Okay … is this being motivated by someone's efforts to better position themselves or their ally for the upcoming elections?’" he said.

Republican candidates have already proposed things like abolishing the state income tax (which funds half the budget), de-annexing the Buckhead neighborhood from the city of Atlanta or more extreme election measures that the two leaders have not really supported.

You’ll also likely see debates over so-called critical race theory, transgender athletes in sports, expanded access to firearms and other measures touted as red meat to win a primary.

And Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, will likely talk about expanding Medicaid and other proposals that will never see the light of day unless and until they have enough votes.

But for their parts, both Duncan and Ralston will try to keep the legislative focus on things they say will better the lives of Georgians and not on bettering someone's poll numbers.

“I know that many of the bills, particularly this year, they're designed to get your attention and for you to give them coverage," Ralston said. "To the extent that they succeed, I guess they'll keep doing it. But you know, I've got a job to do and I'm going to do my job.”

Duncan, who has been a strong and sometimes lonely voice defending the integrity of the 2020 election, agrees.

"That really is where I want to be… to try to eliminate as much of the background political noise as we can, try not to relitigate 2020, try not to overreach and throw red meat," he said.

The most important thing to watch this session is the budget. It’s the only thing lawmakers are, literally, legally required to pass. It funds everything from roads and bridges to K-12 education to public health and agriculture and other state services.

And this year, thanks to revenue surpluses and federal COVID relief, there’s a lot more dollars to work with. 

Kemp has some big ideas, such as pay raises for teachers and state employees. 

"Teachers are asked to do more and more every year… the need for a world-class K-12 education has never been greater," he said in the State of the State speech.

During budget hearings so far, state agency heads have said a $5,000 raise for employees is needed and appreciated, as retention levels drop across important positions.

"But I would suggest to all of us that the ship of the state of Georgia is sailing towards an iceberg, and that iceberg is who is going to run this government five and 10 years from now," Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said, warning of the potential loss of experienced personnel if action isn't taken now.

The schedule has been announced for the rest of the 2022 session, with Crossover Day — the last day a bill has to pass out of at least one chamber to typically be considered the rest of session — set for March 15. The final day of session, called Sine Die, is April 4.

Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Jess Mador. Our editor is Wayne Drash. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.