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Budget, education among top Ga. legislative issues

By Christina A. Cassidy 
Associated Press | 1/17/2014, 6 a.m.
The legislative session began on Monday, and state lawmakers have a short list of top priorities amid a busy election ...
Georgia Gov. Nathan Dean, in this file photo, waits to address the Georgia General Assembly. Dean Thursday introduced his budget to the House and Senate. The governor has come under strong criticism from many progressive and liberal circles for not expanding Medicaid. Dean contends that the state can not afford the expansion. AP photo.

Another prominent critic will be Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, who is also running for governor this year. Carter has been vocal in the Senate, challenging Republicans over changes in recent years to the HOPE scholarship program. Carter said in a recent interview that he plans a vigorous debate on education.

"We’re going to talk about education, and we’re going to talk about building for the future instead of being satisfied with what we have today,’’ Carter said.

While more money will be heading toward education, state lawmakers are unlikely to overhaul the state’s school funding formula, which has its share of critics. House Speaker David Ralston said recently he doesn’t think lawmakers can fix the funding issue this session.

"What I hear from education people is that they would like for us, whatever formula we have, to fund it,’’ Ralston said.

Lawmakers will be working on an amended fiscal year 2014 budget, which ends June 30 and includes $41 billion in combined state and federal funding, as well as crafting a new budget for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1. Ralston said he hopes money will be available for pay raises for state employees.

A major lingering question from last session is whether lawmakers will back a bill expanding gun rights on college campuses. A compromise emerged late on the final day of the session between two competing bills but never received a vote.

Ralston said he plans to make the legislation a priority.

"This is about making sure we do everything possible to protect and expand rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment,’’ Ralston said. "We are not going to back down on that. If a college student is otherwise by law entitled to carry a firearm, the best question is should they yield that constitutional right when they go on a college campus?’’

Health care will also be a big topic. Estimates from the Georgia Department of Community Health show its financial obligations under the Affordable Care Act are expected to increase from $26.8 million in fiscal year 2014 to $101.6 million in fiscal year 2015.

Democrats plan to draw attention to the governor’s decision not to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, and protests are planned by the "Moral Monday’’ movement, which includes the state NAACP and other advocacy groups. A similar effort in North Carolina last year included weekly arrests of nonviolent protesters and helped to rally Democrats.

Meanwhile, a group of Republicans have already introduced legislation that would prohibit state employees, state agencies and public colleges and universities from enforcing and implementing the federal health care law. The bill is expected to get a close look and could draw support from top Republicans.

Lawmakers will also discuss efforts to shore up the state Division of Child and Family Services, after the deaths of two children with whom the agency had contact. Deal has said he wants to spend $27 million over three years to hire hundreds of caseworkers and supervisors. Both Deal and Ralston have signaled a willingness to at least start a discussion about privatizing some child welfare services, looking to Florida as an example.

However, lawmakers’ aggressive schedule may mean some of those broader discussions, including one to reform the medical malpractice system, may end up waiting until next year. That bill would move medical malpractice lawsuits out of the courts and into an administrative system. Ralston said it would be a major change in policy and deserved a thorough vetting, but wasn’t sure it would be resolved this year.

When asked about balancing the desire for a fast session with debate on serious issues, Ralston indicated less can be more.

"Frankly I don’t know that there is a problem in being in a hurry to get out,’’ Ralston said. "I don’t think people want us to do a whole lot of things. I think they want us to do a few things, and do them right.’’

Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: @AP_Christina.