The 9 burning political questions of 2016, answered

Before the start of the new year, erstwhile Insider Daniel Malloy and I laid out the nine questions in Georgia politics that we’d be watching this roller-coaster year.

We’re reprinting that column in full below, with answers attached beneath each question. Take a trip down memory lane with us:

1. How will the SEC Primary shape the presidential race? Georgia saw unprecedented presidential traffic in 2015, in part because of its status at the heart of the March 1 SEC Primary. With two months to go until the vote, and four momentum-swinging states ahead of us in line, it’s impossible to tell how the race will shake out. But we do know that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has been developing the strongest Republican networks, while Donald Trump has been romping in the polls – and March 1 could well be a showdown between those two. Meanwhile, for Democrats, it could be the moment when Hillary Clinton uses her “Southern firewall” to knock out Bernie Sanders.

Answer: A lot. The Southern-flavored vote orchestrated by Secretary of State Brian Kemp indeed helped Trump rise above a crowded Republican field, and it propelled Clinton to a commanding lead over Sanders. But it certainly wasn’t smooth sailing for either; both faced stiff challenges over the next few months.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally last week in Las Vegas. AP/John Locher

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally last week in Las Vegas. AP/John Locher

2. Will Georgia lawmakers embrace “religious liberty” legislation? State Sen. Josh McKoon’s controversial proposal is seen by supporters as a way to protect people of any religion from government interference and by critics as a last gasp from opponents of gay marriage. But both sides agree on one certainty: The debate is sure to roar back to life after the legislation failed in 2015. We’re likely to see another proxy battle pitting establishment forces – including iconic Georgia businesses – who cite the uproar over similar bills in Arkansas and Indiana against grassroots conservatives who have for months clamored for the proposal. Lawmakers, with one eye on potential primary challenges, will be left navigating the divide.

3. Are more vast changes to Georgia’s transportation network in the works? Georgia lawmakers narrowly approved a roughly $1 billion package of fees and taxes for infrastructure improvements in 2015. But that could be just the start. Gov. Nathan Deal and others that backed the tax are looking to consolidate their gains – and defend the Republicans who voted for it. The hotel industry and other lobbies want to chip away at the new charges. And MARTA wants permission to ask voters in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties for a half-penny share of a sales tax to launch what could be an $8 billion expansion up Ga. 400 and along I-20.

Answer: Yep. MARTA got permission to pursue a $2.5 billion expansion, and the transit agency hopes to push into new territory next year. And the Republican lawmakers who seemed most vulnerable for supporting the new package of taxes and fees easily survived primary challenges.

Will Johnny Isakson coast to re-election? The state’s Republican senior senator has been hit from the right for one vote after another, has announced a Parkinson’s diagnosis and faces a changing electorate. But with qualifying a little more than two months away, no Democrat has stepped up to challenge him and the only declared Republican had his campaign account disbanded by the feds. Isakson seems to be taking nothing for granted – he’s been running web ads for months and his team said the two-term incumbent is ready for a fight.

Answer: It wasn’t even close. Democratic newcomer Jim Barksdale poured more than $3 million of his own fortune into the campaign, but his confusing hat-themed message and quixotic strategy – few Democratic leaders would even appear in public with him – hardly earned him 41 percent of the vote.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) speaks during a news conference discussing defunding Planned Parenthood at the Capitol Building in Washington, July 29, 2015. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)

Sen. Johnny Isakson

5. Are Georgia leaders really willing to overhaul the education system? Governors and lawmakers have complained about Georgia’s school funding formula almost since it was enacted 30 years ago, but none have succeeded in significantly changing it. A sweeping change is on the table again this year, along with a host of other measures that could transform how students learn and what teachers teach. Among the most contentious ideas is a plan floated by Deal to tie teacher pay to how they perform in the classroom. But even dipping a toe in this debate is likely to invite a tidal wave of blow-back. Deal and lawmakers must decide if the changes are worth the risk of getting washed out.

Answer: Not yet. Deal kicked off the session by delaying broad changes to education policy recommended by a task force he appointed. And voters showed no appetite for his failing schools initiative, which was soundly defeated at the polls.

6. What red meat will be on the table this year? Georgia Republicans in 2015 endorsed legalizing medical marijuana, approved new fees and taxes to raise $1 billion a year for transportation and backed a new mandate for healthcare coverage, all while failing to adopt the “religious liberty” bill, another expansion to gun rights and new limits on abortions. Which is to say Republicans will be hungry for crowd-pleasing measures they can take home to their voters. Democrats, too, will want to score political points with the base by pushing their own wish-list – even if it has an infinitesimally low chance of passing.

Answer: Plenty. The ill-fated “religious liberty” measure filled much of the vacuum left when Deal bypassed a broader education overhaul. So did a “campus carry” bill that he also nixed. And a range of other debates, from a fight over casinos to battles over booze, grabbed legislators’ attention.

Gov. Nathan Deal at a press conference earlier this year. AJC file/Kent D. Johnson

Gov. Nathan Deal at a press conference earlier this year. AJC file/Kent D. Johnson

7. Can Gov. Nathan Deal make the most of his political capital? The jockeying has already begun to replace Deal, who still has three years left in his final stint in public office. But it will probably be raging by this time next year, meaning that 2016 may be his last chance to wield his full muscle before his potential successors step up their game – and he lapses toward lame-duck status. How he will use it will also help determine what his political legacy will be.

Answer: That’s a better question for next year. After nixing both “campus carry” and “religious liberty” – and getting roundly criticized by GOP activists for both vetoes – the rift between the governor and his party deepened considerably.

8. Will the push to legalize gambling defy the odds? Casino interests are ready to spend big money on Georgia, armed with teams of lobbyists, plans for eye-popping resorts and promises of a new wave of cash for the HOPE scholarship. Deal and other Republican leaders remain opposed to the idea, but even the staunchest critics have said they are open to a debate. While it may be a long shot for 2016 – “don’t bet on it,” Deal said – supporters could be trying to lay the groundwork for a 2017 push.

Answer: Nope. But casino advocates are rolling the dice again next year.

9. Is there a path for a conservative version of Medicaid expansion? It’s hard to imagine Georgia Republicans voting to expand Medicaid in an election year. But 2016 could be the year when Deal and others pave a way toward a halfhearted embrace of the Affordable Care Act. The governor has for years held that an expansion would be too costly in the long run. But GOP leaders elsewhere have expanded their programs, defended previous expansions or signaled they were willing to give it a fresh look. Georgia toyed with a Medicaid “experiment” in 2015 seeking more federal funding for struggling rural hospitals. Next year could be a pivotal one for those working toward a middle ground.

Answer: No, but they were hoping 2017 was the year to do it. Donald Trump’s victory seemed to have put an end to that.

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