The single biggest variable is the Medicaid insurance program for the poor, most of them children. Medicaid already promises to be several hundred million dollars short of what it will need to continue existing services and payment rates in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Even more pressing is an expiring hospital tax that yields about $650 million in state and federal cash. If that levy runs out with no replacement, the shortfall jumps to the neighborhood of $1 billion. Hospitals have presented Gov. Nathan Deal with a plan to extend the tax scheme with some modifications, but they could face some heavy lifting to get an increasingly conservative House and Senate on board.
Plenty of other issues are at play. There will be a range of gun bills in the wake of the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, from proposals to increase the presence of armed guards in schools to new limits on weaponry and ammunition.
Lawmakers must settle details of how to evaluate Georgia public school teachers. Executive agencies approach the session after a series of spending cuts that Deal ordered.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank needs legislative approval for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to help him build a retractable roof stadium to succeed the Georgia Dome. Advocates of overhauling the criminal justice system have set their sights this year on the juvenile justice system.
And there’s no shortage of pure political intrigue with expanding tea party ranks in Speaker David Ralston’s House of Representatives; a Senate where Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other Republican leaders promise smooth sailing after GOP squabbling crippled the chamber last year; and weakened Democratic caucuses looking to find a toehold in either chamber.
Yet nearly all of the questions in some way come back to money. And every decision within the budget hinges on Medicaid and the so-called hospital “bed tax” that expires June 30.