Gen. Assembly to discuss budget, election schedule
by Sarah Fay Campbell
The Georgia General Assembly convenes on Jan. 14 for the first session of the new year. Generally, this session and those that will follow in the first few weeks will consist mostly of budget hearings, during which time both the State House and Senate recess.
This year however, the schedule has been altered considerably.
"This time it looks like we are going to continue to meet on the Tuesday after MLK," said Smith. "That is a change.”
One reason involves legislation that must be passed quickly — a change in the state’s election schedule.
In July, a federal judge ruled that Georgia's election schedule violated federal law as it did not include adequate time between elections and runoffs for overseas voters to receive mail-in absentee ballots.
Under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, passed in 2009, absentee ballots must be available 45 days before an election, at minimum.
In Georgia, runoffs are held 21 days after the general or primary election, making the 45-day requirement impossible.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Georgia, and a judge ruled in favor of the federal government, setting new election dates for 2014.
Unless the legislature votes to align the state's election dates with the federal dates, there would be two separate election schedules.
"When you look at everything … well, we have no choice but to line up our state elections with federal elections. So that is what we will be doing," Smith said.
The bill will be complicated. The qualifying period for state and federal offices will likely move to March 3-7, previously scheduled at the end of April. The legislature will still be in session during qualifying.
The primary, usually scheduled in July, will now be held on May 20, with the runoff in July. Early voting will begin in late April. The November general election date won't change, but the runoff, if any, wouldn't be until Jan. 6.
Because so much will need to be done before qualifying starts, the bill has "got to start moving," Smith said.
As usual, the budget will be the other big bill this year.
After years of cuts, state agencies may see less belt-tightening in 2014.
"I think the agencies will always be asked to look for efficiencies," Smith said. "But I don't know that every agency is going to be asked to cut because things are a little bit better."
Gov. Nathan Deal plans to increase the Department of Family and Children Services' budget so that DFCS offices around the state can hire more case workers and supervisors.
Smith is chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, and a few issues are certain to come before her committee. One in particular will be the renewal of the Solid Waste Trust Fund. The state has many trust funds, and the money that is paid into them is supposed to be designated for certain purposes.
But when there is a budget crunch, those funds often don't go where they are supposed to — instead, they fill holes in the state's budget.
"The legislators are saying we want the funds collected to go to their intended purpose," Smith said.
Another controversial issue might be changes the Jekyll Island Authority wants to see to the limits on development at Jekyll.
However, "I don't know that that is going to come up," Smith said. "I don't think we are going to be doing things that bog us down into heated debates."
However, "there will always be controversies," Smith said. "There's always a reason to stay tuned."