After battling traffic on a yellow school bus to get to Capitol Avenue, we met some of our local legislators for a morning briefing on how the session is going. Sen. John Douglas, Rep. Doug Holt and Rep. John Lunsford were gracious enough to devote their morning to our class. As expected, our senators and representatives are struggling to balance Georgia's budget. I imagine every department in the state looks like newly hatched birds reaching out for food to our legislators, who have the daunting task of spreading the worm out so as not so starve one chick over the other. If you have ideas on budget-saving or revenue-generating measures, contact your legislators. After all, they work for you and would welcome the input.
We then heard from Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, who has been elected numerous times and served in that position for 42 years. Irvin's position is one that Gov. Sonny Perdue would like to be an appointed position, along with a few others, to create a sort of governor's cabinet. It was refreshing to hear Irvin say that he thought the position should remain an elected one because that's what a democracy is all about. Irvin brought along Oscar Garrison, assistant commissioner of consumer protection division, to do most of the talking. It is staggering what his department handles - everything from food processing plant inspections to controlling fuel price gauging. Of course, we talked about Peanut Corporation of America, which has resulted in a risk rating system that should aid consumer safety. However, I learned a few things that surprised me such as most expiration dates pertain to the quality of the product rather than safety and that a ban on the export of horse meat has had an impact on Georgia farmers. As with all state departments, the ag budget has been slashed - inspectors have more than 100 spots they must inspect, usually twice a year - but the best and brightest are working downtown to circumvent problems that arise at such a time.
Our class was honored with a morning order in the House of Representatives brought forth by Rep. Holt. We all stood up and were applauded by the representatives on the floor, which did include Toney Collins. Although we missed Collins in our morning session, it was nice to see that he was attending to the business of the House.
Before we broke for lunch, Sen. Douglas brought us into the Senate and spoke with us about some of its traditions. To name a few: senators must wear a coat and tie on the floor, only senators may use the center aisle while in session and only dialogue in the form of a question is allowed while a senator has the floor. Douglas said sometimes those questions sound something to the effect of, "Is it not true this is the dumbest bill introduced?" It was amazing to sit at the original mahogany desks from the 1880s. So much has occurred in our state and nation since that time, to have something tangible that so many hands have touched in the name of democracy stands as a source of pride for me.
After lunch in the Sloppy Floyd cafeteria, we met our new Secretary of State Brian Kemp and hometown boy, Greg Dozier, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services. Both of these men bring a youthful demeanor yet highly qualified skill set to their positions. Both are concerned with efficiency and customer service and have rolled out programs, such as online incorporation and driver's license renewal, in their respective departments that have saved money, streamlined processes and made Georgia the envy of other states.
Our class ended the day at a place many don't get to see the inside of or don't want to see the inside of - the GBI Crime Lab. Because of short-staffing, George Herrin Jr., Ph.D., deputy director of the Division of Forensic Sciences, and his senior staff took groups of us on a tour of the facility. Newton County Coroner Tommy Davis also met us for a tour of the facility with which he is well acquainted. We watched as employees examined the body of a poor soul who most likely took his own life. It was a somber affair, but a necessary one to determine whether any foul play was involved. I don't think I could get used to that line of work, but I do appreciate those who handle these grim tasks in such a professional manner. Being the daughter of a microbiologist, the toxicology lab probably interested me more than others.
Two things about the crime lab really floored me. The first was the empty offices and dark hallways. The Decatur office is a state-of-the-art facility, but it is running at bare bones currently. The theme of this column is that all government agencies are running on shoestring budgets. However, overwhelming work loads at the crime lab trickle down to the court system as well as hold up insurance filings. The death of a loved one is rough enough without delayed justice or policy payment added to the event. The second thing that really impressed me about the forensics division was the people. Despite consistently dealing with death or being cooped up in a windowless laboratory, everyone we encountered seemed in high spirits and was attentive to our group in the most hospitable way.
People are the bottom line of any budget, whether its people affected or people affecting, and Georgia sure needs help keeping the people afloat.
Jennifer T. Long is the editor of The Covington News and a member of the 2009-2010 class of Leadership Newton County sponsored by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.