ATLANTA – It’s all about the base, the base funding for schools, that is, in the legislative session that starts Monday at 10 a.m.

For the next 40 days, lawmakers will meet under the Capitol’s Gold Dome and introduce about 1,500 pieces of legislation, if it’s like the typical year. Most bills will never be seriously considered, and few of those that do pass will have the far-reaching impact as the recommendations of the Governor’s Education Reform Commission.

Central to the recommendations is a wholesale revision to the 35-year-old formula in state law for how the Department of Education allocates taxpayers’ money to local school districts.

The chairman of the commission, Charles Knapp, said Friday he expects plenty of debate among legislators and interest groups.

“I think the real debate in the legislature is going to be over the funding formula and the compensation issue,” he said.

The commission is recommending that districts be given technical advice on shifting from the current pay system to one geared toward merit pay. Currently, teachers get automatic raises the longer they’re on the job and the more college degrees they earn.

Teacher groups have vowed to fight that recommendation even though districts already have the authority to change to merit pay without legislative approval.

House Speaker David Ralston told reporters Thursday he didn’t know if Gov. Nathan Deal will include a merit-pay provision in the bill he proposes based on the commission recommendations. But Ralston said teachers he respects in his district have asked him to oppose it.

“I don’t know that there’s going to be a bill (on merit pay),” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I can assure the teachers that what I heard them say will stay with me through the entire session.”

There are other recommendations that aren’t controversial which are likely to be part of Deal’s legislative package. His budget recommendations for education are also sure to get lots of attention.

Budget

The bulk of state spending goes toward education and healthcare, and Deal is expected to have more money to work with for next year’s budget, $1 billion more. Most of the added money will go toward filling gaps in school appropriations under the current funding formula as well as repaying the state’s pension fund and reserves that were drained in the recession.

There is some available that could be used for pay raises for state employees if Deal doesn’t use it for his own initiatives, according to experts at Georgia State University.

Religion

Always a touchy topic, religion seems to be extra explosive when politicians debate it.

Last year, the Senate passed a bill to allow people to decline any customer requests that offend their religious beliefs – generally considered to mean those related to gay marriage. Some large, Georgia-based businesses and gay-rights groups lobbied against the bill, and the House never bought it up for a vote.

Ralston favors a different bill that would only protect clergy, although most legal experts say it’s already the case that no one can make a priest, minister, rabbi or imam conduct a marriage against their faith’s teachings.

Groups on both sides of the issue have already promised to renew their clash from last year.

Gambling

For many Georgians, opposition to gambling is a matter of religion. For others, it’s about jobs. And this year it will also be about education since a bill introduced at the end of last year’s session by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, would dedicate the taxes collected from any casinos to the state’s HOPE Scholarship.

Horse breeders in the Augusta and North Atlanta areas want to use the casino bill as an opportunity to legalize betting on horse races as well.

Stephens, the chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, is eager to expand legalized gaming to get large, resort hotels built in Atlanta and Savannah and three other parts of the state for the jobs they’ll bring.

Deal has said he opposes casinos, although he said he might reconsider if the tax rate were higher than Stephens’ original proposal. Still, passage is not certain, even from legislators whose districts would be home to one of the casinos.

“I don’t think the Savannah delegation is united on that,” said Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah.

Marijuana

Last year, the media focused on the passage of a bill legalizing the possession of oil derived from marijuana for patients with a handful of medical conditions, like frequent childhood seizures. However, federal law prohibits transporting the oil, and state law still prohibits growing marijuana to produce the oil in Georgia, meaning qualifying patients still don’t have legal access to the oil.

Deal has said he opposes any change, even under strict, pharmaceutical conditions, that would allow the growing of marijuana in the state. The sponsor of last year’s bill, Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, resigned as Deal’s House floor leader and announced he will sponsor a bill for growers in defiance of the governor.

Also, Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, is sponsoring a bill that would reduce to a misdemeanor the penalty for possessing more than an ounce of actual marijuana in plant or cigarette form.

Beer

Cleaning up a detail from last year, lawmakers are expected to revise a law enacted in 2015 permitting craft brewers to give samples to people who pay to tour their facilities.

The brewers thought the bill would essentially allow them to sell limited amounts of beer directly to the public, rather than through the wholesale-retail network.

However, the Department of Revenue wrote the regulations administering last year’s law change as if the idea really was to give samples to people who bought tours, not the backdoor sales avenue brewers wanted. For instance, the price for tours that include samples can’t be based on differences in the beer itself.

Ralston told reporters, “We’ll try to see if they can get back to the intention of that bill (from last year.”

Fireworks

As if debates over religion, money, beer, gambling and marijuana don’t offer enough fireworks, several legislators have promised legislation dealing with actual fireworks. Lawmakers legalized their use last year, but backlash over noisy, late-night celebrations is prompting new proposals this year to limit when they can be used.

Space

If some issues seem spacey, Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, has a bill dealing directly with space. He is hoping to remove some legal hurdles to the development of a commercial spaceport in Camden County on the Florida line.

The bill would limit the liability of spaceship operators and suppliers.

“By offering distinct protections that will attract and retain this industry to our state, we will create high-paying jobs, boost tourism and introduce new educational opportunities for our citizens,” Spencer said.

Transportation

This is an issue not expected to result in major legislation. That’s because the General Assembly enacted a bill last year that raised taxes and redirected the budget to give the Department of Transportation nearly $1 billion more for road maintenance.

Hoteliers, especially in Savannah, want to end a $5-per-night tax included in the bill because they say it hurts business.

House Transportation Chairman Christian Coomer, R-Cassville, said last week he’s opposed to any monkeying with last year’s handiwork for now.

“Let’s get a year of data in, and then we can review the data,” he said. “We’ll see if the problems warned by the interest groups come to fruition.”

Follow Walter Jones on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com.

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