Georgia’s legislators will do plenty of talking about the major issues that confront them during the General Assembly session that kicked off Monday.
When it comes to actually passing legislation that would do something about these issues, however, the odds are much lower that lawmakers’ actions will match their words. You shouldn’t expect to see the passage of many significant bills this year.
A big reason for this is that 2012 is an election year in which the seats of all 236 senators and representatives will be up for grabs.
Lawmakers will want to end the session quickly so they can once again solicit contributions and get their re-election campaigns underway. You can’t do that if you’re stuck in Atlanta debating the merits of mandatory drug testing for Medicaid recipients.
Last year’s redrawing of political boundary lines also means that many legislators will be running in districts with a large number of people that they’ve never represented before.
I don’t think an incumbent lawmaker will want to explain to a new constituent why he or she voted for a controversial bill that got the folks back home riled up. It’s easier to do as little as possible during the legislative session so that you have less to answer for on the campaign trail.
You will certainly hear Gov. Nathan Deal and the leadership talking about their desire to ratchet up the state sales tax so that they can reduce the state income tax.
The drive to enact this revision of the tax code foundered last year, but some lawmakers are still pushing for that kind of tax shift. They’ve been surfacing proposals to reinstate the sales tax on groceries, raise the overall state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, and increase the excise tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack.
Most of the leadership has indicated they won’t support those tax increases – which effectively puts a reduction in the income tax out of reach.
Deal’s spokesman has already said the governor won’t sign a tax increase. “I would be opposed to that, although I think that it is important that we continue to have a discussion about what sort of tax system we want to have in Georgia,” House Speaker David Ralston said when asked about reinstating the grocery tax.
“Putting the sales tax back on groceries is a non-starter for me,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said. “Most people have been attempting to fill holes in the budget with revenue enhancements. That’s not something that I’m interested in.”
The one tax revision measure that has a fair chance of passing is the elimination of the state sales tax on energy purchased by manufacturers and farmers, which would result in an estimated $150 million reduction in state revenues.
Republicans and Democrats alike have said they could support this particular change, which might be the only tax measure to make it through both chambers.
You won’t see much action this year on another issue that consumed every lawmaker’s attention last year: keeping undocumented immigrants out of Georgia.
Legislators are not expected to go back and make any major changes in the state’s new immigration law, despite the adverse impact it had on the state’s farmers. Instead, they will sit back and see if a federal court in Atlanta continues to block some of the law’s provisions.
“I think that it is premature to go back and revisit that issue this session,” Ralston said. “My view is, we let the court case take its course and wait a little while to gather some more evidence about the impact that this is really having.”
Deal might have some success in his push for changes in the state’s sentencing laws so that fewer people are sent to prison while drug addicts and non-violent offenders are diverted into alternative treatment programs.
Legislators could also find themselves voting on a new law that would allow just about anyone to carry a firearm in public without having to bother with such things as fingerprinting, background checks of their criminal arrest records, or obtaining a concealed weapons permit.
At this point in time, it appears we will have a relatively quiet legislative session. Let’s see how long that prediction holds.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)