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Monday, January 11, 2010

Georgia General Assembly 2010: A preview

Posted By and on Mon, Jan 11, 2010 at 6:07 PM

click to enlarge PICK A PROBLEM: State lawmakers will face water, transportation and gun law reform issues -- in addition to ethics fixes that could reform the Gold Dome's good-ol'-boy culture.
  • PICK A PROBLEM: State lawmakers will face water, transportation and gun law reform issues -- in addition to ethics fixes that could reform the Gold Dome's good-ol'-boy culture.

A state budget decimated by the financial crisis. An intense need for transit but no money to pay for it. A fast-approaching deadline for the most vital natural resource a populace requires. And long-overdue reforms to the cozy relationships elected officials have built with deep-pocketed lobbyists. These are just a smattering of the issues state lawmakers will tackle during the next 40 days of the Georgia General Assembly, which started Jan. 11.

Residents will be treated to posturing, grandstanding and the occasional valiant effort to bring progress to a state that's falling behind. And to top it all off, it's an election year, which means lawmakers will try to one-up each other with the most outlandish of red-meat bills involving guns, immigration and zygotes that are virtually guaranteed to rouse the political base. It's by no means an exhaustive list, but we've outlined some of the most daunting – and controversial – issues lawmakers are likely to address.

Budget bummer

Georgia's financial woes will be the one issue upon which most, if not all, other issues hinge for the next 40 days. Thanks to job losses, company closures and the death rattle of the state's once-booming development industry, lawmakers are fretting about cutting as much as $1.2 billion from the budget – without raising taxes. According to Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, state revenues have dropped $4.5 billion in two years. "We're basically operating at 2005 levels," Hill says. "And we've grown roughly 600,000 people since then."

In previous years, lawmakers often would have cash left to spend or would bank the state's reserves. Not in 2010. The state's cut itself to the bone, says Alan Essig, executive director of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. And absent new fees and tax hikes, education and health care are the only two departments left to cut. Essig warns that school years could be shortened, teachers furloughed and class sizes expanded to make ends meet. In expectation of a $500 million Medicaid shortfall, doctor reimbursements could be trimmed. And the special-interest tax breaks and exemptions that lawmakers dole out every year? Expect them to come under close scrutiny as the state basically tries to stay financially afloat. There's hope that an uptick in the cigarette tax – or perhaps legalizing alcohol sales on Sunday – could raise much-needed revenue. But judging how tax-adverse many lawmakers are, don't hold your breath.

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(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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