Newton County's delegation to the Capitol predicted that next year's session will be a very tough one with transportation, water concerns and tax reform all on the agenda to be discussed.
Speaking before a gathered crowd at the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce's Legislative Forum held at DeKalb Technical College's Newton Center Wednesday morning were State Senator John Douglas (R-District 17), State Rep. Doug Holt (R-District 112), State Rep. John Lunsford (R-District 110) and State Rep. Robert Mumford (R- District 95.)
Newton County's delegation acknowledged that 2007's legislative session was largely unproductive with name-calling and petty rivalries between the governor, lieutenant governor and Speaker of the House (all Republicans) taking up much of the session's time.
"Last session was probably one of the worst we've ever had," Lunsford said. "(The) next one's likely to be worse."
All four delegates agreed that the Georgia Department of Transportation's funding crisis needed to be solved this session. At the end of 2006 GDOT announced that it was facing a $7.7 billion shortage in funding, resulting in nearly $120 million in Newton County road projects being pushed back several years or completely cut from GDOT's five year budget.
How the funding crisis will be solved is to be debated. Holt raised the possibility of allowing counties and cities to band together to pass regional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes for specific road projects.
Lunsford, however, said that a regional SPLOST would penalize businesses located on the state's borders selling specialty or luxury items which would see their customers flock to border states with a smaller sales tax.
"There's a cause and effect to everything we do," Lunsford said.
Douglas said he was in favor of the state allocating the $600 million surplus it ended the fiscal year with to GDOT before any bills were passed to raise taxes. Lunsford said he felt the surplus should be returned to the taxpayers.
Lunsford said he was disgusted with the bureaucracy of GDOT which he said considerably lengthened the time period of road construction projects, often times resulting in the cost of construction and right-of-way increasing significantly because so much time had passed.
"I think it's time for us to stop studying and start building," Lunsford said.
Addressing the historic drought which has plagued north Georgia for the past two years, Mumford said. "We do not have a water problem in north Georgia. We have a problem that we have allowed unbridled growth in two counties."
Mumford said growth in Gwinnett and Forsyth Counties has outpaced available water sources and contributed to the dangerously low levels of Lake Lanier.
"We are going to have to build some more reservoirs," Mumford said.
Added Douglas, "If I'm going to comment on the way the city of Atlanta does business, it's not going to be a nice comment. As long as they don't take water from Newton County or the rest of my district, I wish the city of Atlanta well with their problems.
Touching on House Speaker Glenn Richardson's Georgia's Repeal of Every Ad-Valorem Tax Plan, Mumford said he thought the tax reform plan would face an uphill battle in the Georgia House where it has been introduced.
The GREAT Plan has been scaled back somewhat by Richardson since he first introduced it over the summer. He is now advocating for the repeal of school property taxes to be replaced with a wider sales tax. However he still faces considerable opposition from local governments, concerned that their ability to fund existing programs will be jeopardized by the plan.
Richardson also faces opposition from members of his own Republican Party who are concerned that the GREAT Plan goes against the party's platform which emphasizes local control.
"I don't know that stripping local control away from the cities, counties and school boards is the way to go," Douglas said, adding that the plan would also face significant challenges in the Senate if it passes the House.
In Richardson's favor is the fact that Georgians largely detest paying property taxes and very well might pass the plan in a referendum if it makes it onto the 2008 ballot.
Also on the agenda for the Newton Delegation next year:
Douglas said he will try to have a line-item providing $2 million for the rehabilitation of the Porter Memorial Gym - destroyed in a 2005 fire - into the fiscal year 2008-2009 budget.
Mumford said he plans to reintroduce a bill to split the Alcovy Judicial Circuit which is currently comprised of both Newton and Walton Counties. Mumford said he feels the bill's chances of passing this year are very good.
On the chance that it doesn't pass, Mumford said he will introduce another bill to add a fifth judge to the circuit. If the circuit cannot be split next year, Mumford said the Alcovy Judicial Circuit is listed as the number one circuit in line to receive funding for another judge.