Georgia Legislative Preview 2021

The Georgia Legislature gavels back into session this week, welcoming 10 new senators and 26 new representatives – each joining their colleagues in facing the unprecedented and expected challenges of dealing with a global recession and pandemic.

Last June, as a preemptive measure, lawmakers cut spending by 10% for nearly every state agency for the current fiscal year. The state avoided large-scale employee layoffs and furloughs but braced for a de facto halt in the revenue stream.

Fortunately, state revenue has risen by $551 million compared with the same period in FY2020, in large part because Georgia was one of the first states to relax COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.

Gov. Brian Kemp will likely release his proposals for the rest of fiscal 2021 and 2022 shortly, providing a direction for the Legislature to respond to the simultaneous economic and medical crises. The governor has previewed his 2022 budget by telling state agency heads not to expect additional cuts for the fiscal year 2022.

Many expect the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to result in the state’s economic engine revving back up. However, any unforeseen vaccine rollout issues could significantly harm a return to financial and social normalcy.

Education

Last year’s 10% across-the-board cut included eliminating nearly $1 billion in K-12 education spending. Lawmakers assumed that municipal education departments had sufficient reserves to cushion the cut – an assumption that has generally proved to be correct.

Gov. Kemp campaigned in 2018 on a promise to deliver a $5,000 pay increase for Georgia public school teachers. The following year he secured funding for $3,000 from the Legislature. The remaining $2,000 was proposed early last year but scrapped when the pandemic upset fiscal projections and forced large cuts to the state budget. If revenue is strong and the state’s economic recovery continues, look for the governor to reemerge as a champion for higher teacher salaries.

School choice advocates in the Legislature will likely reintroduce proposals to allow state funds for private school tuition and expenses, and Gov. Kemp is likely to support these measures.

Rural Broadband

In recent years, the Georgia Legislature has passed several bills to increase broadband Internet access in low-income and rural communities. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this need when hundreds of thousands of students and employees switched to at-home education and employment. In the upcoming legislative session, watch for elected officials representing rural communities to make a case for additional state funding for enhanced broadband access.

Gaming

Gaming (including lotteries, betting, and card games) is considered a lucrative source of untapped state revenue that could fund entire new state initiatives. Although efforts to secure the necessary two-thirds majority of voters for a constitutional amendment have thus far eluded proponents of expanded gaming, many believe that their repeated attempts are getting them closer to winning the debate. The first chip to fall will likely be sports betting, but the real prize money is casinos and horse-racing.

Redistricting

The Legislature is responsible for redistricting following each census, and legislators are expected to address redistricting as part of the 2021 legislative session. Because Republicans control both the state House and Senate, any redistricting battles will likely be intraparty skirmishes.