Session over, Georgia primaries on horizon

Lawmakers’ leave Gold Dome with an eye toward facing voters May 20.

By Aaron Gould Sheinin aaron.gouldsheinin@ajc.com and Kristina Torres ktorres@ajc.com

Gee, think there’s an election this year?

Georgia lawmakers finished their 2014 session Thursday with more than enough campaign material to fill constituents’ mailboxes, inboxes and empty lawns. Now, less than two months stand between them and primary elections, with everyone from the governor to the speaker of the House to veteran senators facing challengers on May 20.

Broaden gun rights in Georgia? Check. Pledge pay raises for teachers? Check. Block as much of Obamacare as possible? Check.

Measures on medical marijuana, privatizing the state’s child welfare system and autism insurance for young children? They all failed.

“I’m disappointed we couldn’t get the job done,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who championed House Bill 885, which was designed to allow Georgia families to use cannabis oil to treat certain disorders that can cause hundreds of seizures a day in children and adults and

often lead to death.

“Hopefully, we come up with some solutions and we’ll tee it back up again in January — assuming I’m back, ‘cause we’ve got an election to get through,” said Peake, who has his own primary challenger.

Hours after the anti-Obamacare bills passed Tuesday, on Day 39 of the 40-day session, one of their champions touted the accomplishment in a campaign newsletter.

State Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, wants to upgrade from the state House to the U.S. House. Locked in a tough primary fight in Georgia’s 11th Congressional District, Lindsey has used this session to burnish his conservative credentials.

“A Georgia Conservative Who Gets the Job Done on Day 39” was the headline on his congressional campaign email blast last week. It goes on to chronicle the bills he helped pass the day before, including House Bill 943, which would bar state employees from advocating for the Affordable Care Act and stop state or local governments from helping Georgians sign up for coverage under the law, and HB 990, which would strip the governor of the power to expand Medicaid and give it to the Legislature.

At the bottom of the message: A big red button that says, “DONATE.”

“A lot of it is just election-year fodder so they can go home and advertise it and say, ‘We did this, we did that,’ “ said former longtime state Sen. George Hooks, a Democrat from Americus who now lobbies at the Capitol for several historical organizations. “Because of the rush of primaries in May, you’re seeing more of it this session than I’ve seen in a long time.”

Among them: a bill that would force some applicants for food stamps and welfare in Georgia to get drug-tested and pay for it themselves, sponsored by Rep. Greg Morris, RVidalia. Morris faces a primary challenge from a retired Navy SEAL, but he has said that during the legislative session he gave little thought to the primary. “I’ve been up here legislating,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on politically.”

Hooks sees it differently.

“That’s just window dressing,” he said, referring to the food stamp bill, “to say ‘We’ve done that.’ “

Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, said there’s no question the primary coming so close to the end of the session had an impact.

“There were some bills that were definitely red meat” for voters, Brock-way said.

“Obviously, the gun bill is popular with Republican primary voters,” an exhausted Brockway said the day after lawmakers finished work. “We were in a situation where if we, as Republicans, didn’t pass it, that would have caused problems in primaries for a lot of Republicans, including the governor.”

Brockway has no primary opponent. Gov. Nathan Deal has two.

But while several bills pleasing to conservative primary voters passed, others failed. One measure that would have limited the state’s ability to implement the Common Core education standards met a solid wall in the House and was defeated. Another that pledged to protect religious freedoms gained a lot of attention but little support in the GOP-dominated General Assembly.

But, Brockway said, even the Common Core bill’s demise had roots in politics.

“Common Core polls really negatively on the Republican side,” he said, “but not so much overall,” meaning independent voters in a general election could be turned off by legislation that rolled back educational standards.

Then there’s the money aimed squarely at the hometown crowds.

Lawmakers doled out several feel-good items in the state’s upcoming $20.8 billion budget and in a series of tax bills.

They approved Deal’s proposal to pour more than $300 million extra into schools to eliminate furloughs, lengthen the school year and, if there’s money left over, give teachers pay raises. Money was included to give many state employees merit raises as well, the first for most since before the Great Recession.

Legislators pumped more than $800 million into construction projects across the state, with the bulk of the money going to new schools, college buildings, libraries and the deepening of Savannah’s harbor.

Under Deal’s direction, they approved money for a new grant to give extra money to technical school students with top grades. He named the grant, like a similar scholarship for top students in the University System of Georgia, after Zell Miller, who’s still popular years after serving as a governor and U.S. senator.

With tens of thousands of teachers, retirees and state employees angry over changes to their health plan, Deal and lawmakers put more money into the State Health Benefits Plan to placate members. Legislators also directed the Department of Community Health to increase the number of insurance providers to give teachers, retirees and employees more coverage choices next year.

Deal proposed and won General Assembly approval for the always-popular back-to-school sales tax holiday. The holiday, which costs state and local governments $70 million in lost tax revenue, exempts clothing, school supplies and other items from sales taxes Aug. 1-2.

New tax breaks or extensions of existing ones also went to some big campaign donors, such as UPS, and customers of big donors, such as Gulf-stream.

But some of what lawmakers did on the budget and taxes created potential campaign issues for their opponents.

At the last minute, legislative leaders put $17 million into the budget for the upcoming fiscal year to expand a parking deck that will be used by Falcons fans at the team’s new downtown stadium. Critics of public spending on the stadium, including at least one of Deal’s opponents in the May 20 primary, have railed against the addition.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, however, said Republicans in the House and Senate focused on the needs of Georgians.

“Georgians think this state is on the right track,” Ralston said moments after gaveling the 2014 session to a close. “They’re proud of what we’re doing here in terms of balancing our budget and growing jobs.”

But, he said, Georgians are distrustful of Washington and, at least on the Republican side, like little about Obamacare. A poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January found only 25 percent of Republicans support expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, compared with nearly 90 percent of Democrats.

“I think that probably influenced the decision here,” said Ralston, who faces a primary challenge from a high school wrestling coach. “I don’t know that had anything to do with moving up the primary date.”

Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.