Lawmakers likely to focus on economy and education, not social issues, in 2023
Legislative turnover was high—around 50 incumbent legislators did not run for re-election—which ensured that some leadership positions would be gutted. This power vacuum appeared as though it would more acutely shake up the Georgia Senate. It has been clear for months that there would be a new lieutenant governor, president pro tempore, and perhaps an entirely new Senate majority leadership team. The Georgia House of Representatives, on the other hand, seemed like it would remain under the current leadership. All of that changed when Speaker David Ralston, Republican, shockingly announced a couple weeks ago that he was stepping down from his post. “I need to take time to address a health challenge which has arisen recently, and the House needs a Speaker who can devote the necessary time and energy to the office,” he said in a statement. Just days ago, Ralston sadly passed away. His decision to vacate the speaker’s office set off a fight to fill the void he leaves, which has already reshaped the House. With the high legislative attrition rate and new leadership, many spectators are left a little unsure over what the Georgia General Assembly’s priorities will be in 2023. Given that the majority of Georgians said in a recent poll that the economy or high cost of living/inflation was their top issue, lawmakers would be wise to work on these topics and put social issues on the backburner. “With leadership change comes a little bit of a different focus, but the pressing needs of our citizens aren’t changing,” Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, told me over the phone. “[Education and the economy] have always been at the top and should be at the top. Even with the shift in leadership, we are still rowing in the same direction,” he reassured me, which should relieve Georgians since the state has been prudently governed. Georgia was the first state to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdowns. It maintains a AAA bond rating, boasts a 2.9 percent unemployment rate, and has a rainy day fund that should make other states jealous. In fact, this smart budgeting has permitted Gov. Brian Kemp to temporarily suspend the gas tax as petroleum prices remain high, and lawmakers are determined to keep Georgia one of the top places to do business. Despite the state’s positive outlook, there’s still work to be done. Last year, Kemp signed into law landmark legislation to improve mental healthcare in Georgia. Before anyone unfurls a mission-accomplished banner, Brass asserts that more reforms are needed, although it is a bit too early to know what these proposals might look like. Kemp has also signaled that education will loom large in the coming session. He plans to push for $65 million to combat pandemic learning loss, which has become a national issue. Testing this year demonstrated that “9-year-olds lost ground in math, and scores in reading fell by the largest margin in more than 30 years,” writes The New York Times. Policymakers hope to reverse this trend and others. “We are going to have to figure out how the state can better combat inflation […] and help our citizens to be able to afford everyday life,” Brass continued. With the inflation rate pegged at around 7.7 percent, many Georgians are struggling. Faced with this reality, “I think we will focus on fighting some of the bad policies coming out of the federal government that are negatively impacting our citizens,” Brass told me. While the upcoming 2023 legislative session looks to tackle many issues related to economic opportunity, the Legislature has not been shy about debating hot-button topics ranging from abortion, to Second Amendment rights, to trans athletes in the past. When asked whether cultural issues might feature prominently in the 2023 legislative session, Brass responded, “This short answer is no.” However, he admitted that some could arise on the periphery, if the Legislature decides to tweak previously enacted laws related to social issues. It seems that lawmakers are planning on taking a smart approach and directing their energies toward creating more economic opportunities in Georgia. But with so many new faces in the Gold Dome, don’t be shocked if a few head-scratching bills rise to the forefront. While Brass explained that he’s not sponsoring any legislation that would surprise voters and doesn’t know of any prospective bills that would catch Georgians off guard, “Every year, there are two or three that pop up […] that we don’t see coming.” Like all surprises, we will have to wait patiently to see what they are.