Eric Zuniga, Campus Carrier staff writer
The Georgia General Assembly convened for the first day of its legislative session Jan. 9. Following the midterm elections last year, in which every seat of the state House and Senate was up for election, Republicans retained wide majorities in both chambers. Although there are 53 new legislators in the assembly, Democrats only managed to gain two House seats and one Senate seat from Republicans.
Both chambers will be under new leadership, however. Republican representative Jon Burns was unanimously elected speaker of the House, following the death of previous speaker David Ralston in November. Republican Burt Jones, as the newly elected lieutenant governor, will serve as the president of the Senate. Wendy Davis, Berry alumna and a member of the Democratic National Committee, said that the new leadership could greatly influence the legislation passed during this session.
“There’s going to be a lot of new [change], and the reality is we don’t necessarily know what it all means,” Davis said. “Those kind of big high-level leadership changes means there are likely going to be a lot of leadership changes in all of the committees, and the reality is that where most of the detail work gets done, in the committees.”
In addition to the new leadership, there has also been speculation regarding the power of more strongly conservative elements within the Republican Party during this year’s legislative session. The new president of the Senate, Burt Jones, is aligned with the party’s conservative policy and supported former president Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. According to Eric Sands, associate professor of political science, governor Brian Kemp has distanced himself from Trump and the right-wing faction of the party, instead touting his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Kemp has already made his legacy on covid,” Sands said. “He’s going to be remembered for strong leadership; he’s going to be remembered for keeping Georgia strong when other states folded. In a way he doesn’t have a lot to prove, so it’s going to be interesting to see how ambitious he is.”
On the top of Kemp’s agenda have been efforts to make use of the state’s $6 billion budget surplus. Last Friday, he proposed a budget that included an income tax rebate for most Georgians as well as an extra $1 billion for schools and funding to allow the HOPE scholarship program to pay full tuition. The legislature will review Kemp’s budget this week. According to Sands, Kemp has also pushed for lower property tax rates, which will most likely favor those who already own homes.
“It’s going to help people who are more established,” Sands said. “It brings the overall monthly cost of owning a home down and makes ownership more possible for younger people. But we’re talking maybe a couple hundred bucks here, if that even. That’s probably not going to be a difference between whether you can afford a house or not.”
Abortion is another issue the legislature may consider during this session. Following the Supreme Court’s overturning of guaranteed abortion rights last year, a bill restricting abortion, known as the heartbeat bill, passed in 2019, which bans abortions after six weeks, took effect in Georgia. The law has been subject to legal challenges, with the state Supreme Court considering a case over its constitutionality later this year. If the court upholds the law, Republicans may be reluctant to pass more restrictive measures such as an outright ban on abortion due to their unpopularity, according to Sands.
“They have to appease their base by putting new limitations on abortion, but not go so far as to outlaw it entirely. That would inspire a pretty fierce backlash,” Sands said.
The General Assembly may also consider expansion of health coverage during this session. Under the Affordable Care Act passed during the Obama presidency, states are allowed expand Medicaid coverage to all adults at a higher percentage of the poverty line than historically permitted. Georgia is one of twelve states that has not expanded Medicaid. Sands said that Republicans may pass a limited form of Medicaid expansion.
“I think that the Republicans are probably going to vote for some form of Medicaid expansion—not full expansion, but some limited expansion for Medicaid,” Sands said.
Sands added that the legislature may consider changes to the way education funds are distributed, which has not been modified since 1985.
“I did see that they’re going to look at some of the ways that education dollars are divided up among different districts across the state,” Sands said. “[Some people] have said that the money really ought to be going to schools that need it the most, not to schools that are really affluent with vibrant tax bases.”
Kemp also announced additional funding to support electrical vehicle manufacturing in his budget. Last year, he helped secure a commitment from Hyundai to build an electric vehicle plant near Savannah. Davis said that whether conservative assembly members will oppose green technology measures remains to be seen.
“[Kemp] has very much been at the leading edge of placing Georgia at the center of that emerging industry,” Davis said. “The thing that fascinates me about all that is some of the more [conservative] folks in the Republican party like Marjorie Taylor Greene are almost reactionary about electric vehicles and all of that green technology. I’m fascinated to see if that rift develops.”
Despite the uncertainties in the General Assembly, Davis said that students interested in political action should closely watch the legislature’s agenda as well as get involved in local elections.
“Try to watch what the priorities are for the state legislature and the governor,” Davis said. “In the city of Rome, we have six of the nine commissioners are up for election in November. Hopefully there will be competitive elections for all six of those seats, and that’s something that students can really have an impact on and be involved in.”