The 2021 Georgia legislative session began with a sense of uncertainty as the aftermath of November’s election and the COVID-19 pandemic carried over well into the new year.
For state legislators, this meant focusing early on amending the current state budget in case an outbreak forced another legislative session suspension. Thankfully, lawmakers were able to complete the session without disruption.
This year’s typical rush of legislation during the session’s final day included the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Atypically, lawmakers faced yet another infusion of federal stimulus money – another $4.7 billion – as they debated spending priorities for the upcoming year.
Another headliner related to 2020 was the election reform bill. After much debate about the need for such a measure and after considering dozens of bills that would have made dramatic changes to state election law, legislators settled on legislation that was much more measured.
Among its measures, the bill signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 25 expands the number of days for early voting (including on weekends) and establishes absentee-ballot drop boxes in law for the first time to increase voters’ options. It shortens runoff elections by introducing ranked-choice voting for overseas voters, and it attempts to boost election integrity for absentee ballots by replacing the uncertain process of signature matching with a requirement to include an identification number on returned ballots. There are also provisions to expedite ballot-counting – long a complaint by voters of all political stripes – and a new process for the State Election Board to intervene in counties that persistently violate voting regulations.
The bill is not without its detractors, but on the whole it seems most likely to maintain or increase options for voters and security for ballots; the onus will be on legislators to correct any missteps.
Notably for a session conducted during the midst of a public health crisis, it was relatively light on healthcare legislation. One bill that received a lot of attention would have prohibited healthcare facilities from prohibiting a family member or representative visiting patients during a public health emergency. Ultimately, the bill was gutted by special interest groups and tabled until next year.
The state’s Certificate of Need (CON) law, which effectively allows existing hospitals to block new competition into the marketplace, remains in place. CON policy is worth revisiting in 2022; the public health crisis exacerbated the lack of patient choice.
Education, an area that experienced massive upheaval during the pandemic, received a great deal of attention from lawmakers. They restored the majority of cuts to K-12 public school budgets, in addition to some $6 billion in federal money school districts have received over the past year.
Legislators also improved education options in three important ways. First, they expanded the state’s successful, 14-year-old Special Needs Scholarship to make more students eligible. Second, they moved public charter schools closer to funding parity with traditional public schools. Finally, by protecting learning pods from local or state regulations better suited for schools or childcare centers, they ensured families are not left in the lurch on a future “virtual learning” day.
Lawmakers approved a tax reform measure that raises the standard deduction for individuals and married couples. The standard deduction increases to $5,400 from $4,600 for individuals and to $7,100 from $6,000 for married couples.
The pandemic forestalled legislators’ plans during the 2020 session to fulfill their promise to lower the top state income tax rate to 5.5%, but a strong recovery should warrant renewed interest in the future.
Although the General Assembly has concluded its “regular” annual duties, legislators will return to the Gold Dome later this year to begin the redistricting and reapportionment process that occurs once every decade. The pandemic delayed the release of the Census Bureau data until this fall, but the population shifts and demographic changes of the past decade will be in play as lawmakers convene to redraw the district boundaries that go into effect for the 2022 election season.