Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously remarked, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
That sentiment could also apply to the 2023 edition of the Georgia legislature. Or, as we say in the South, it will be clear as mud.
On one hand, Gov. Brian Kemp was re-elected to a second term that held with Georgia’s historical norms. Since the Georgia Constitution was revised in 1976 to allow governors to serve consecutive terms, Gov. Kemp became the sixth governor out of seven that Georgians returned to office. Political wisdom holds that this is when the governor is at the peak of his powers.
On the other hand, the 157th Georgia General Assembly will convene on January 9 in a major break with precedent. For the first time since 1959, a new House speaker and new lieutenant governor will lead their respective chambers under the Gold Dome. This will only heighten the feeling of change that was already anticipated after the 2022 statewide elections and decennial redistricting process accelerated a number of retirements and departures.
For the first time since 2009, the House of Representatives will be led by a speaker other than David Ralston. At the time of his death in November, Ralston was the longest-serving active speaker of a state house in the nation and the longest-serving Republican speaker in state history. House Republicans voted to nominate Jon Burns, an agribusinessman from the town of Newington in southeast Georgia, and he is expected to be confirmed for the position once the legislature convenes in January.
There is uncertainty as to how the House will operate this year. Will the new speaker exert outsized influence compared to years past, or will he favor a more hands-off approach at the beginning? And will many of the current committee chairmen return to their roles?
Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones assumed the role of speaker after Ralston’s death. While her tenure will be brief, she did name Matt Hatchett as House Appropriations Chairman in December, providing a head start in budget preparations for the upcoming session. Hatchett will replace longtime Chairman Terry England, who did not run for re-election after nearly 12 years shepherding the state budget through the House.
Meanwhile, the Senate will feature a new leadership slate led by Burt Jones, a former state senator from Jackson, who will assume the gavel as lieutenant governor. And while it will be a different kind of uncertainty for a body that is often billed as “56 independent operators,” the effect on legislating (or lack thereof) could very well unfold the same way. In addition, both chambers will convene to finalize committee chairmen and the majority of committee rosters, further delaying the start of legislative activity.
The good news is that the state’s finances remain exceptional. This means that one upcoming policy debate is likely to revolve around how to return part of the record $6 billion-plus surplus to citizens. While Gov. Kemp has publicly stated his preference for another round of rebate checks for taxpayers, House members have signaled their willingness to expedite lowering the tax rates from legislation passed earlier this year.
While returning money to taxpayers should enjoy widespread appeal, potential efforts to address the rising cost of housing could split lawmakers. So far, there have been few agreements on what is driving the cost, and even fewer on the solutions.
Despite a pandemic that brought unrest among parents and teachers on how students were being educated, and the subsequent pandemic-related funding that left school systems awash with cash, observers are expecting a session light on education policy.
One area with the potential for movement is health policy. The closure of Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center in 2022 — and Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point months before that — has legislators seeking ways to address how organizations utilize the state’s certificate of need laws to keep competitors out and create gaps when it comes to healthcare delivery for all Georgians.
Lastly, in what is becoming a regular occurrence for these legislative previews, lawmakers will meet their constitutional requirement and convene on the second Monday of January — only to quickly gavel in and out to depart for Los Angeles and make it in time to cheer on the Georgia Bulldogs as they seek their second consecutive national championship.