For a one-word description of Georgia’s 2023 legislative session, which ended just after midnight this past Wednesday, one could hardly improve on “almost.”
Major school choice legislation to help students in Georgia’s lowest-performing schools “almost” made it across the finish line.
Public charter schools and Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship program “almost” realized some modest enhancements.
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners “almost” gained new flexibility to care for Georgia patients.
Home builders and developers “almost” won some limited restrictions on local governments’ ability to clamp down on much-needed new housing.
Georgians re-entering society after prison sentences “almost” won greater clarity about the occupational licenses they are eligible to pursue.
All of these proposals cleared either the House or the Senate, but not both. “Almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, as the saying goes.
It’s not unusual for significant legislation to take both years of a biennial term to achieve final passage. Some true legislative champions pushed mightily for some of the pending bills, particularly when it comes to school choice, and the “almost” passed bills remain alive for next year.
What is somewhat unique to this year’s session is the dearth of significant legislation that was completed.
Some of the most-discussed issues, such as various bills to expand gambling in Georgia via casinos or horse tracks or sports-betting apps, never really got off the ground. Nor did much come of last year’s study committee on reforming the Quality Basic Education funding formula.
Other issues, such as the House’s bid to boost mental health or the Senate’s effort to reform our outdated Certificate of Need laws, won enthusiastic support in their originating chamber but scarcely got a hearing in the other.
Before the session began, there was a lot of talk about using the state’s record surplus to accelerate the tax-cut package that was approved in 2022 but wasn’t set to take effect until 2024. Instead, most taxpayers will receive a pair of one-time rebates: one on their income taxes, another on their property taxes.
Were there no bright spots? Let’s not be overly dour. Lawmakers approved two bills addressing childhood literacy, an urgent problem for Georgia. One, by Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, establishes a state Council on Literacy. The other, by Rep. Bethany Ballard, R-Warner Robins, requires local school systems to use instructional materials scientifically proven to help students learn to read. (It’s amazing, in a depressing sort of way, that the latter needed to be codified in law. But too many school systems fall prey to companies hawking reading curricula that simply don’t work.)
While last year’s tax-rate cuts weren’t amended to begin this year, legislators agreed to a plan by Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, that accelerates larger income exemptions for married couples and makes technical changes to pave the way for faster rate cuts as soon as next year.
A large number of workers who earned an occupational license in another state will – thanks to a bill by Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta – have their credentials recognized in Georgia rather than having to jump through the same hoops after moving here.
And children learning entrepreneurship through the time-honored tradition of selling lemonade on their sidewalk won’t face local regulations under new legislation by Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.
To bring up these wins isn’t exactly grasping for straws. But compared to the measures that didn’t pass, it “almost” is.
Perhaps this was destined to happen after a slew of leadership transitions. The Senate is led by newly elected Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and a mostly new slate of GOP leaders. In the House, Jon Burns unexpectedly took over as Speaker from the late David Ralston, triggering several changes in that body’s majority-party leadership. Numerous committee chairmanships also turned over. Although Gov. Brian Kemp was re-elected, it’s no small thing to have new people settling into important new roles in both legislative chambers.
If so, maybe Georgians will grant them a mulligan for one year. But two? I can’t even “almost” imagine that.