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Posted: December 16, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Local legislators discuss key issues

Topics of discussion include budget, water and transportation

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Deeper budget cuts, transportation funding and water disputes will dominate the spring Georgia legislative session according to Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) and Rep. Doug Holt (R-Social Circle).

The local legislators were invited to Tuesday’s Newton AM meeting by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee and AT&T.

The budget was the main topic of discussion as another billion dollars may have to be trimmed this spring. The Georgia General Assembly cut the current fiscal year 2010 budget by $2.5 billion to $18.6 billion in July, and the expectation is that the fiscal year 2011 budget will be even lower, somewhere around $17 billion. November’s tax revenue figures were around 17 percent lower this year from last.

Holt said the decline in tax revenue started two years ago, and this second year of declining figures is particularly painful.

"It’s really unpleasant … you get into the second year (of declines), and you were down 10 percent last year, and now you’re down 15 percent this year. That 15 percent is on top of the previous 10 percent. It’s really painful," Holt said.

Both Douglas and Holt said the assembly would try to spare education from deep cuts. Douglas said K-12 education spending accounts for 47 percent of the state’s budget and higher education accounts for an additional 13 percent, so spending will have to be cut.

"I expect education would see less cuts than other areas, but other will have to see more. By less it could be one percent less or two percent less or barely even," Douglas said.

Every department will face some cuts, and Holt said some house members are considering cutting entire programs, but he didn’t offer any specifics at this time. He said no one can remember having such consistent declines.

"In no one’s living service memory is there a situation where we had absolute declines like this. I’ve had legislators tell me 20 to 30 years ago that a recession meant we would have less extra money then we expected," he said.

Holt said the state’s reserve fund, which was at $1.6 billion previously, has been mostly used up to cover shortfalls over the past two years. Only $200 million remains.

Holt said one of the things the house is working on is passing a zero-based budgeting bill. Currently, departments set their budgets based on last year’s budget. With a zero-based system, the departments would have to build their budgets from the ground up once every three or four years.

Douglas said water will also be a key issue over the next two years, as the future use of Lake Lanier is discussed. Some metro Atlanta counties draw 100 percent of their drinking water from Lake Lanier. If the counties are unable to continue to use the lake, Douglas and Holt said they are both opposed to counties with water, like Newton, being forced to give up or even sell water.

Holt said the governor is exploring all options, and there have even been informal discussions with Tennessee about getting water from the Tennessee River, in exchange for designating the Chattanooga airport as the reliever airport for Atlanta.

The future of transportation funding was also discussed, and both local legislators said they were in favor of a regional system. This would allow counties to decide individually whether they wanted to institute a transportation special local option sales tax, or T-SPLOST. However, a statewide tax is also an option.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said counties are facing financial shortfalls just like the state. He said the state currently mandates 59 services that counties must provide many of which are unfunded. He asked if there was any chance of the number of services being reduced. Holt and Douglas said they hadn’t heard any specifics, but would certainly be willing to listen.

"It behooves us at the state to recognize you all are in the same financial boat that we are. Us passing things on to you just because we can is not the answer," he said. "If we can get a list of those 59 items … you’ll probably find a sympathetic group of folks up there."

There also discussion about relaxing the mandates on local school boards.

Host Danny Stone asked about ethics reform, in light of former speaker Glenn Richardson having an affair with a representative from Atlanta Gas Light and legislators not paying taxes and not filing campaign disclosure reports.

Holt said ideas for reform are being discussed, including taking ethics out of the legislature and putting it in charge of the State Ethics Commission.

Because of the difficulty of the budget, Douglas joked the session will be short.

"We’ll just say no to everybody and be out of there in no time flat," he said.

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