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Opinion

A look ahead to the 2021 legislative session


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jan. 05, 2021 - 4:41 PM

A look ahead to the 2021 legislative session

The Newnan Times-Herald

2020 bore witness to the one of the longest legislative sessions in Georgia’s history. Ordinarily, the General Assembly convenes in early January and adjourns in the early spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic stretched session into late June. Indeed, the outbreak wreaked havoc on the legislature’s normal operations.

Despite the challenges of holding meetings, hearings and floor votes during a pandemic, Georgia lawmakers managed to have a successful session and worked to pass several important initiatives. Now, only a handful of short months later, the General Assembly is already ramping up for a new legislative session, and the potential agenda is starting to take form.

First and foremost, the legislature’s job is to pass a budget. Last year, the budget office was predicting a small recession, which needed to be accounted for, but then COVID-19 proliferated across the country. As economies shut down temporarily, public assistance expenditures went up and tax revenues went down. This blew massive holes in government budgets across the country, and Georgia was no exception.

At the time, nobody knew how bad the recession would be, but lawmakers buckled down and drafted a budget that left the state on remarkably stable ground. In fact, while we are only a handful of months into Georgia’s new fiscal year, “Year-to-date, net tax revenue collections totaled $10.17 billion, for an increase of $551.1 million, or 5.7 percent, compared to FY 2020,” according to the governor’s office.

It seems that smart budgeting and better than expected tax revenues might have saved public officials from the unwelcome task of making draconian spending cuts in 2021. With revenues inching upward, a few lawmakers may tinker with the idea of fulfilling prior commitments from last session—like reducing the income tax rate and giving teachers the full pay raise they were promised.

Yet if I were a betting man, I’d wager that these initiatives will be placed on ice for now. Our economic recovery is tenuous at best, and leadership would probably prefer to retain the current tax structure for now, restock the rainy-day fund and raise spending levels marginally. If the economic situation continues to improve, officials may approve teacher raises and a tax cut in 2022—a campaign year for legislators and the governor.

Beyond inking a budget, officials will likely focus on reducing unnecessary regulations on employers and employees to get more Georgians back into the workforce. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Georgia’s unemployment rate stood at a whopping 12.6 percent. While it has since dropped precipitously to 4.5 percent, there’s still plenty of work to do. Far too many Georgians are out of work, unemployment benefits are running out for many of these individuals and others who have been unemployed for extended periods of time have simply quit looking for work.

There’s no silver bullet to remedy this, but all eyes have been on Congress. Indeed, Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said earlier, “Congress will decide if a new program will be implemented or extensions will be put in place.” Congress ultimately acted, but State legislators are looking at other means to help Georgians. The rumors under the Gold Dome are that elected officials are studying ways to make it easier for people to get back to work, and some of their focus will be on reducing burdensome professional licensing restrictions that often do little other than keep individuals out of the workforce.

In addition to these matters, I’d be shocked if numerous lawmakers don’t introduce voting reform measures, which will be controversial lightning rods and result in heated committee hearings. Following the recent elections, there has been widespread dissatisfaction. As a result, some are already discussing ways of reforming absentee voting—either by requiring voters to have an approved excuse to vote from home, eliminating ballot drop boxes, or by changing other aspects of absentee voting.

Officials would be wise to be cautious here. Absentee voting has demonstrated time and again to be a convenient and remarkably safe and secure mode of performing your civic duty. In fact, to date, no instances of widespread, organized absentee voter fraud have been proven in Georgia in the past election—despite what you might read on the internet. What’s more, Republicans and Democrats support absentee voting by large margins.

While I have no doubt that the prospective sponsors of any such legislation have the only purest of intentions, any substantive limitations on voting will undoubtedly appear as lawmakers attempting to restrict access to voting. This could be a public relations nightmare, given the South’s unseemly history with voting access and suppression.

Of course, it is impossible to tell how the 2021 legislative session will unfold, but it seems likely that the legislature will spend considerable time on the budget, responsibly cut red tape on licensing restrictions and amend voting laws. Time will tell how these issues will play out.

Marc Hyden is the director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.