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Posted: January 17, 2011 9:54 a.m.

Legislators prepare for 2011 session

The start to this year’s Georgia General Assembly was intermittent, but Newton County’s team of state legislators are already busy, particularly the three freshman who are entering a new arena.

As the lone returning member and lone Newton County resident, Rep. Doug Holt (R-Social Circle) said he expects to take the lead on any issues affecting Newton County. He said he’ll be responsible for keeping the three freshman legislators, Rep. Pam Dickerson (D-Conyers), Rep. Andy Welch (R-Locust Grove) and Sen. Rick Jeffares (R-Locust Grove), in the loop of Newton County affairs.

"I think they will bring some good background knowledge to the table. They’ve all been very straightforward, and I think we'll be able to gel as a team," Holt said Friday. "I suspect I’ll head up the home efforts, since I’m the only person living in Newton.

"That’s the approach I’ve always taken. For anyone not from Newton, I’ve tried to take care of the Newton information. Without (Sen. ) John Douglas, that will be much more of my focus."

Fiscal Year 2012 Budget

Balancing the budget will once again be the General Assembly’s main focus in 2011, Holt said, as the state stares at the possibility of a more than $1 billion deficit for fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1.

In his Wednesday State of the State address, Gov. Nathan Deal proposed to end teacher furloughs, while proposing significant cuts to higher education and cutting 14,000 state positions, the majority of which are vacant. The state will have to further reduce spending as federal stimulus money is set to expire this year.

"I find the governor’s proposal to cease cutting education further very interesting and would like to do that if at all possible," Holt said.

Sen. Jeffares said he started going through his copy of the governor’s 428-page budget report Thursday. State revenue figures trended higher in the latter part of 2010, and Jeffares said he's hoping the revenue deficit will be closer to $1 billion than $1.5 billion.

"After a week or two, we’ll have a whole lot better idea," Jeffares said Friday.

2011’s OtherKey Issues

The Republican Caucus has been discussing its other major issues for the year, and Jeffares said job creation, economic growth, illegal immigration and reservoirs and water issues top the list.

Rep. Welch said his focus during the campaign was on tax reform and he won’t sway from that in 2011. On Jan. 7, the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness released its report on how to restructure Georgia’s tax code, including reducing personal income tax from 6 percent to 4 percent and increasing products subject to sales tax, including groceries.

"I campaigned on tax reform," Welch said Friday. "So, in order to achieve my goals, I’m going to be looking through the tax council’s 97 page document to scrutinize that. It does include some reforms we’re looking for."

Welch said he will also focus on addressing the Hope scholarship, which would be cut by $279 million next year under Deal’s budget, and creating jobs by promoting economic development projects.

Georgia will also undergo redistricting in 2011, following the release of the 2010 U.S. Census numbers, and Welch said he will keep close tabs on that process.

Rep. Dickerson said her priority this year is to simply become acquainted with the issues and stay accessible to the public. She said she was excited to see Gov. Deal propose ending teacher furloughs, which was one of her top agenda items during the campaign. Education issues will be at the top of her list.

First Few Days in Office

"My first impression is that it was exciting," Dickerson said on Friday, reflecting on the first two days of the 2011 session. "We will be very busy examining all the initiatives the governor has proposed to set in place."

Despite being the lone Democrat in Newton’s legislative team, Dickerson said she felt the group would be able to work together effectively.

"It’s not about me or the party, it’s about the people," she said.

Jeffares said he felt a great responsibility, because he was representing so many people.

"I thought about it a lot; it’s kind of overwhelming, representing 200,000 people. You have to think about everything you do," Jeffares said. "I’m the one representing them. I put a lot of faith in that. I’ve asked a lot of questions (of the party leadership). They’ll probably be tired of me asking questions soon."

Jeffares is one of 14 Republican Freshman senators, and the majority leaders have been very helpful in getting the large class up to speed.

Welch said the experience has been humbling.

"The amount of work ahead of us, just on our state budget, is an enormous task and working to minimize the impacts of state government on local taxpayers is going to be a priority," he said. "It’s a daunting task."

As the veteran of the group, Holt was the only one who had a good idea of what legislation he wanted to introduce this session.

He said he was intrigued by Deal’s comments in his inaugural address where he spoke about parental involvement in education. Holt is researching possibilities for legislation dealing with parental involvement and discipline in classroom education.

"I feel more strongly that this is part of the root cause of our problems in education," Holt said.

Holt is also continuing to work on a bill he introduced last year that would give business and residents a way to address conflicts with their local boards of health, which don’t currently have any oversight.

The General Assembly will reconvene on Jan. 24.

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