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Year of change?
2010 Georgia General Assembly

From water to transportation to ethics, legislators took up many heavy issues as the Georgia General Assembly reconvened Jan. 11 in the second half of the two-year cycle. And, of course, looming over discussions of all else was the budget.

With a shortfall estimated at $1.5 billion for the remaining months of fiscal year 2010 and a projected revenue for FY2011 dipping to levels not seen since 2005, possibly 2004, discussion centered around cuts rather than increasing fees or taxes, at least from legislators that stopped by the Georgia Press Association's Publisher's Day at the Capitol.

Despite the challenges, most legislators seemed optimistic that this was the year for breakthroughs. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle spoke of the new spirit that pervaded the legislature.

"There's a lot of things that are different," he noted. "There really is a spirit of working together. The hope is we're going to see more conducive environment to getting things done."


Dire warnings of cuts especially out of education funding were a common theme.

State Representative Earl Ehrhart (R, Powder Springs), House Rules Committee chair, warned that deep cuts had been already been made in most other state services besides K-12 education and indicated this year cuts to would be more than just 3 percent.

Don Balfour (R, Snellville), chair of the Senator Rules Committee, said the legislature was looking at a two year moratorium on some regulations to allow local school districts more flexibility in addressing cuts.

Rep. Dubose Porter (D, Dublin) responded to Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposals to tie teacher pay to performance.

"I don't think it's something that would work. I think it would set up teachers to fail," said Porter, who is also has his hat in the governor's race.
He described how nearby North Carolina had put federal stimulus dollars into teacher incentives. "They're taking our best and our brightest to other states."

Representative Ronald Ramsey (D, Decatur), who represents a portion of Rockdale, said the idea had been formulated with little buy-in from stakeholders.


With a court ruling requiring Atlanta to find a way to stop drawing drinking water from Lake Lanier within three years, "the clock is ticking" Cagle noted, and water conservation and management is in sharp focus this year.

Cagle referred to findings from the Governor's Water Contingency Task Force, which reported in December that conservation was necessary but not enough to close the gap left by not drawing on Lake Lanier and a three pronged approach - conserving, capturing and controlling water sources - would be necessary.

"We've got to expand existing reservoirs and build additional reservoirs," said Cagle.

When asked where the money for the building and expansions would come from, Cagle said some of the ideas being discussed included Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority loans or partnering with the private sector.

David Shipp, who heads the government committee for the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce, said the concern for Rockdale was preserving water independence.

"We have done the difficult work in passing and paying for a water reservoir and water treatment plant," he said. "We do not want to be pulled back in to have our resources sucked back into Atlanta."


This year, with new leadership, there seemed to be more promise of finding a resolution to transportation funding.
According to the state's strategic transportation plan, the current funding from the motor fuel tax is not adequate to sustain long term transportation development.

When asked how new transportation funding would be allocated, Cagle said he and the governor were continuing to dialogue about that.
"That has been a point of contention," said Cagle, but indicated things seemed to be heading toward a regional approach.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has advocated a regional approach to transportation in past years with funds from a penny sales tax for the 10 county region that would stay in the region. There would be a predetermined list of projects with an option for each county to reject participation in the T-SPLOST. Catherine Brulet of the ARC estimated that could raise up to $7.9 billion over a 10 year period.


Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R, Woodstock) said cutting the budget was the easy part. "At least with the budget, we know what it is," he said. The hard part is creating growth, economic development and jobs.

He said he is against the property tax and described the process by which it was determined as "almost broken."

"We've got to have some uniformity," he said. He said there would be an effort to remake the appeals process in a way that tax payers will feel that it is a fair process they can understand.