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Posted: January 13, 2009 7:34 p.m.

State senator and representatives brace for bruising budget battle

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Georgia State Capitol dome

 Monday marked the beginning of first day of the Georgia General Assembly’s 2009 session. Newton County’s own legislative delegation has prepared a slew of bills to introduce and is preparing for a blistering debate over how to balance the state’s budget.

Newton County is represented in Atlanta by Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle), State Rep. Doug Holt (R-Social Circle), State Rep. John Lunsford (R-McDonough) and newly elected State Rep. Toney Collins (D-Conyers).

"The number one task…is going to be balancing the budget," said Douglas, who was given a seat on the prestigious and influential Appropriations Committee this year.

Lunsford said he believed the state budget deficit was larger than current estimates of $2 billion.

"My personal observation is we’re probably $2.3 billion in the hole. We’re going to have to do some serious work [balancing the budget], there’s no doubt about that," Lunsford said.

Holt said weeding through which state programs to trim and which ones to leave be will be very difficult. None of the three men gave any indication that there would be any move at the state level to raise taxes in order to balance the budget. Unlike the federal government, Georgia is required by its constitution to have a balanced budget.

"When you have a deficit, especially one as severe as the one we’re facing, that’s going to bring the majority of your attention," Holt said. "Now we’ve got to figure out how to divvy up the pain and how to do it fairly."

Douglas, Holt and Lunsford also spoke at length on the various pieces of legislation they will be introducing this year. Despite repeated telephone calls and e-mails, Collins did not return requests for comment for this article.

 

Sen. John Douglas

Douglas has four pieces of legislation he plans to introduce. One is a bill that would bar any convicted sex offender from running for a seat on a local school board. The bill is a reaction to last year’s attempt by Don Horace Gresham to qualify to run for a seat on the Newton County Board of Education.

He also has two bills dealing with methamphetamine drug usage and prosecution. Senate Bill 10 would make pseudoephedrine, the primary ingredient used to make methamphetamine, a prescription drug rather than just an over the counter drug, which it is now.

After Mexico outlawed pseudoephedrine completely in 2008, Douglas said there was a fear by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations that this would push the production of methamphetamine back across the border of the United States.

"They’ve [the GBI] asked me to do this to be proactive to make sure that if meth production comes back to the states, we make it as hard as we can to produce it in Georgia," Douglas said.

Douglas’s second meth bill, Senate Bill 15, would establish cleanup standards for buildings where methamphetamine has been produced. There are currently no standards in Georgia for cleaning up meth houses.

"When first responders go into a meth houses, they wear hazmat suites but as soon as they get everything out of there, you could put a ‘For Sale’ sign on the house and never tell anyone that meth had been produced in that house," Douglas said.

The idea for that bill and the information for it came from a concerned constituent.

"It’s an example of a constituent having an idea and making a difference," he said.

Douglas’ last, Senate Bill 9, is a piece of gun legislation that would eliminate a state requirement that all concealed weapons be carried in a holster. Douglas said the bill is a matter of convenience in the event of an emergency.

"If a woman has a concealed weapon in her purse… she has to get in her purse, get it out of the holster. This would eliminate that middle step so if she needed it in an emergency she could just get at it and have it," Douglas said. "Frankly, I think requiring a holster is an overextension of the government telling people how to handle properly licensed weapons."

In addition to his new assignment on the Appropriations Committee, Douglas has been given a seat on the Ethics Committee and on the Higher Education Committee, of which he is the secretary.

 

State Rep. John Lunsford

As the chair of a study committee that has spent the past 10 months researching medical delivery and the cost of health care for indigent and charity patients, Lunsford says healthcare reform will be a big part of his focus this session.

"I’m working feverishly on hospital finance," Lunsford said. "I do expect probably an omnibus hospital health bill coming out."

Lunsford is also keeping an eye on legislative developments at the national level. To that end, Monday he introduced a constitutional amendment that would prohibit labor unions from organizing in businesses by simply gaining a majority of worker signatures.

The proposed amendment is a reaction to legislation gaining steam on Capitol Hill that would make it easier nationally for workers to join unions.

Most states only allow labor unions to form after winning a secret ballot vote. Labor unions typically have a much higher success rate of forming when a majority of workers sign cards saying they want a union.

Lunsford said he introduced the amendment "so the federal government can’t mandate how we run our state."

If the proposed amendment passes the legislature, then it must be approved in a voter referendum before it can go into effect.

 

State Rep. Doug Holt

Holt said he has plans to introduce a few bills this session, though none so controversial as his Fair Annexation Act from several years ago.

One of Holt’s bills seeks to streamline the regulations that the Department of Transportation puts on owners of heavy equipment and utility contractors.

"They have a variety of requirements for carrying heavy loads around," Holt said, adding that his bill would automate some of the process through the Internet. "[It] gives us the opportunity to make the system work a little more efficiently and to protect the public’s investment in roads."

Holt said there is a "fairly high likelihood" that some element of the property tax legislation supported by House Speaker Glenn Richardson last year will be reintroduced.

"The speaker is not going to be carrying anything this year, but there are elements [of the property tax legislation] that some elements of the [Republican] caucus really have a keen interest in," Holt said.

Still, Holt said property tax issues are "definitely going to take a back seat to budget issues."

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