Gov. Deal's education agenda will shape 2017 legislature
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers return to the state Capitol on Jan. 9 with a full slate of priorities. But questions remain about Gov. Nathan Deal's education agenda and how a new presidential administration will affect Georgia, leaving uncertainty about how this year's session will play out.
Here's a look at some of the top issues for 2017:
This session is Deal's best chance to make large-scale changes in education, a priority since he won re-election in 2014. But he's coming off a tough defeat this fall when voters rejected a constitutional amendment allowing the state to take over routinely low-performing schools.
Deal delayed a push in 2016 to overhaul Georgia's formula for funding schools and how teachers are paid to focus on that now-defeated amendment.
The chairmen of both the House and Senate committees on education said recently that they expect Deal to return his focus to school funding this year.
"Our governor is committed," said Rep. Brooks Coleman, a Republican who chairs the House committee. "I really believe we're going to get it done this time."
Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Republican who chairs the Senate committee, was more cautious, saying he wants lawmakers to consider the effect of any formula changes years into the future.
Deal has stayed quiet about details. A commission he appointed in 2015 to study the issue recommended major changes to Georgia's existing formula for doling out money to schools, factoring in individual students' poverty level, grade level and enrollment in gifted or special education classes. The group also suggested that school districts be given more power over teacher pay, potentially using student performance as a factor.
Casino backers are prepared for another fight this year after a proposed constitutional amendment stalled in the House in 2016. State lobbying records show at least 49 registrations on behalf of several gambling companies, including Las Vegas names MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts.
Rep. Ron Stephens, who sponsored last year's version, said he plans to bring something similar. That measure sought a statewide vote on whether to allow four casinos in Georgia: two in metro Atlanta and two elsewhere in the state. If the constitutional amendment passed, voters would have to approve specific projects in local referendums.
Supporters argue that casino gambling is the solution to high demand for Georgia's college scholarship program, known as the HOPE grant. Georgia's lottery has struggled to keep up with demand for those merit-based awards intended to cover expenses to attend the state's public colleges.
Democrats want any funds from casinos devoted to a new program providing needs-based aid for higher education costs. In the House, their votes are crucial to reaching the required margin for constitutional amendments.
President-elect Donald Trump's election shook up expectations that lawmakers would consider expanding health coverage for Georgia's uninsured residents. The state didn't accept Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, but there were signs that majority Republicans would consider some form of it this session with backing from influential business groups and other players.
That all changed with Trump's win and opportunity to repeal the federal health care law. Georgia Republicans say they need to see what Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress do next.
Rep. Stacey Abrams, who leads House Democrats, said members will continue pushing for expanded coverage for uninsured residents. She worries that a "wait and see" approach will hurt some of the state's hospitals continuing to see large numbers of uninsured patients.
Aside from Medicaid, lawmakers are expected to again consider ending Georgia's "certificate of need" program, used to regulate expansions or openings of medical facilities. But the influential Georgia Hospital Association and other groups oppose the change.
RELIGION AND POLITICS
Conservative lawmakers again plan to bring a variety of proposals broadly categorized as "religious freedom" bills. Backers of a 2016 bill that protected people acting on their religion, including opponents of same-sex marriage, blasted Gov. Nathan Deal's veto of that measure.
Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican, said he may bring a bill this year mirroring a 1993 federal "religious freedom" law. McKoon said other members may focus on protecting faith-based adoption agencies that get state money.
The chance of any measure in this area becoming law seems low. Deal's veto message of last year's bills was sweeping and explicit.
The Republican hasn't changed his tone on the topic, and House Speaker David Ralston also has said he'd prefer that the discussion move to Congress rather than state legislatures creating a legal patchwork across the country.