Monday, March 30, 2009

Group Urges Lawmakers to Fix Transportation Before Time Runs Out

Local governments leaders, businesses owners and environmentalists all came together Monday in Atlanta, urging lawmakers to cross the finish line and pass some kind of transportation reform.

The Get Georgia Moving coalition is a group of about 100 businesses and local governments from across the state. Members of the group came to the Capitol to try and push legislators to fix the state's crumbling transportation network before time runs out in the session. Lawmakers only have two more days left.

House and Senate leaders are still at odds over how to govern and fund the transportation overhaul. House lawmakers are pushing for a statewide penny sales tax while Senate leaders prefer a regional approach to funding. And Governor Sonny Perdue's plan to create a new state agency to oversee transportation projects appears to be fading.

Doug Hertz is co-chair of Get Georgia Moving coalition. He says it doesn't matter which plan passes. His group just wants both sides to come to some type of an agreement - and fast.
"We're on the one yard line. We have got to cross the finish line. We've got only a couple more days left to get that done."
The last day of the session is scheduled to be Friday.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

House Committee Rejects Gov. Perdue's Transportation Plan

The House Transportation Committee today said "no" to a plan unveiled earlier this year by Governor Sonny Perdue for remaking transportation in Georgia.

When the Governor introduced Senate Bill 200, he said he wanted to dismantle the Georgia Department of Transportation, create a new state agency, realign transportation construction responsibilities and fold the DOT into the appropriations process.

The much leaner plan approved by the committee today does only the last. It ensures the DOT, like every other state agency, must face the General Assemby when budget time rolls around. But the bill, among other things, keeps the existing DOT in place as lead transportation construction agency and keeps GRTA and SERTA operating.

Republican Representative David Ralston describes the measure approved today as a balance between the two legislative bodies.

"I think what it does is allow us to reach a compromise on a bill we can get passed. And it still retains the ability for the General Assembly to appropriate funds."

In previous committee meetings, some House members expressed concern that the original bill stripped the General Assembly of its power to elect board members.

But amendments made today keep that procedure in place.

"There was some concern amongst some members about doing that, I think. And some people were a little reluctant to do that and create a new authority and create a board having that relationship," says Ralston.

The measure will make its way back to the Senate where members will likely disagree with the changes. That will force the bill into a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will try to hash out their differences.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Georgia Drives Closer to English-only License Testing

Georgia is moving towards becoming the first state in the country to mandate English-only tests for driver's licenses. And members of the business community are worried that the proposal could cost the state money in commerce.

The plan would require English only tests for permanent driver's licenses. Right now, the state offers individual driver's license tests in 12 languages other than English. But Republican Senator Jack Murphy is concerned that people who can't read the signs written in English are driving in harm's way. He says that's all Senate Bill 67 aims to fix.
"It is purely a safety issue. It has not a anti-immigrant bill and I take exception to the people that're saying that."
One of the people criticizing the bill is Peter Isbister, who's with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He says the bill could have a chilling effect on economic development in Georgia, tempting businesses to look elsewhere for expansion. Issbisster points to the city of Nashville, Tennessee, where a similar proposal was rejected.
"When we see foreign investors comparing and evaluating where they want to where to go, where they want to invest, I think the message that Nashville is sending is a much more attractive one than Georgia will be sending with this bill."
That's why Issbister and other opponents of the bill wore stickers that read "SB67 equals Kia, Go Home."

Korean auto-maker Kia Motors plans to open a 2,200-acre manufacturing plant in West Point later this year.

Helen Kim is with the Korean American Coalition in Atlanta. She says the bill is sending the wrong message to:
"...hard-working families and individuals that live here - Korean and other immigrant citizens and residents, but especially to these international companies like Kia and Sandy Corporation that have been courted actively by the state to come here, bring jobs, invest money."
Right now, about 5,000 people per month request testing in a language other than English, according to the Georgia Department of Driver Services. If the bill does become law, temporary driving permits could still be given in another language.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Georgia House Sends 2010 Budget to Senate

Georgia’s 2010 budget passed the state House Thursday, but not without some help from Uncle Sam.

The proposed budget calls for more than $18.5 billion in state spending and includes about $1.4 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

The aid from the White House could help fund some of the $29 million for school nurses Governor Sonny Perdue wanted to eliminate. It could also plug a $200 million hole in the state’s Medicaid program.

Republican Ben Harbin says budget-writers looked meticulously at every agency’s spending.

“We’ve had to make some tough decisions, and those tough decisions didn’t come with just a willy-nilly reaction to what we thought was way a to get this budget balanced…”
But some Democrats are crying foul because the budget doesn’t include funds for the Homeowner’s Tax Relief Grants. They’re calling it the biggest tax increase in Georgia’s history.

The budget now heads to the Senate.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

House Considers Changing Unanimous-Jury Requirement for Death Sentences

A bill that would allow prosecutors more options in imposing life-without-parole sentences is in jeopardy because some want to make amendments.

The state House was set to take up a Senate bil that would allow prosecutors to seek life without parole sentences. Currenlty that is only possible if they first ask for the death penalty. But the bill was sent back to committee before reaching the floor.

Motivated by the Brian Nichols case, leading House Republicans want to add an amendment to do away with Georgia's unanimous-jury verdict-requirement in death penalty cases.

The proposed changes have bill sponsor Senator Preston Smith irate. He says the measure was supposed to be a victims' rights bill and House members are quickly turning it into something new.

"This late in the session a bill should not be hijacked that hasn't even come through a committee in either chamber. And so I'm very disappointed and I hope they reconsider that action."

Smith says that if the bill doesn't pass, families of murder victims could see the convicted killers back on the streets. Lawmakers have just 9 legislative days left to pass the bill.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Senate Passes Bill Requiring HIV Testing in Prisons

The state Senate passed a bill today that requires HIV testing for inmates before being released from state prisons.

Right now, Georgia law already requires HIV testing when inmates enter the prison system.

But Democratic Senator Kasim Reed says he wants to protect people who are around those infected with the virus once released from jail. He says knowledge is power.

"The data suggests that when people know their status, they change their behavior."

But some lawmakers, like Republican Senator John Douglas, question whether testing inmates who go back into the community will protect others.

"Once these people are released from prison, there is no, there is nothing to force them to tell their partner that they have HIV."

The AIDS tests, which cost about $4.00, would not be required unless the state decides to fund them. The bill now goes to the House.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Georgia House Votes to Move Sine Die to April 3

The state House voted today to adjust the legislative calendar for the rest of the 2009 session.

Sine Die was set to be at the end of June, just before the end of the 2009 fiscal year. But House Majority Leader Jerry Keen says the legislature has more information on the federal stimulus money coming to the state and there is no longer a need to prolong the session.

The state Senate is expected to adopt the new schedule soon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sunday Sales Bill Dries Up After Withdrawal

The chance of buying alcohol on Sundays in Georgia is drying up.

Today a Senate committee was set to take up a bill that would've let voters decide whether to allow Sunday alcohol sales in their communities.

But bill sponsor Seth Harp suddenly withdrew the bill. He says it simply didn't have enough votes to pass out of committee.

"I think there were the forces there that wanted to do it in, and we didn't have the numbers."

Even though the bill is now dead, supporters like Kathy Kuzava with the Georgia Food Industry Association weren't too worried. She says the amount of public support behind legislation like this shows that Georgians won't let the idea lay to rest.

"We will definitely be back to fight this issue because again as you know the polling is coming across is overwhelmingly in favor of... local option for Sunday sales."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Perdue cuts budget projections by 1.6 Billion

Governor Perdue today reduced next year’s budget projections by over 1.6 billion dollars.

"This revised budget is austere, tough and balanced," Perdue says.

The loosers in the new budget proporsal will likely be trauma care funds which will be cut in half. State employees will be asked to pay 5 percent more of their health insurance beginning in January.

Pedue says what may soften the cuts somewhat is 1.1 billion dollars in federal stimulus funding.

"We don't believe this is free money," Perdue says. "And we will be responsible stuarts of these funds."
Perdue decided to adjust the budget after seeing preliminary revenue income for February. He says state economists are not projecting any growth revenue this year so the budget for next year will be the same as the one ending July 1 of 2009.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Georgia's New Transportation Plan Could Violate Civil Rights, Critics Charge

By John Sepulvado

Some Democratic Senators are concerned a transportation plan could reduce minority input into road projects.

Governor Sonny Perdue is pushing a plan that would strip the constitutionally created Department of Transportation and turn it over to a new state agency. New board members would be selected by the speaker, the Governor and the Lt. Governor.

Democratic State Senator Kasim Reed of Atlanta says the plan may require Justice Department approval as it could be a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"You’re going to shift the majority of the power of that body and place it somewhere else and there’s a very good chance you could have no minority participation in any way. "
Critics of the system say the Department of Transportation board members, which are elected by state legislators according to congressional district, need to be replaced in order to complete projects quickly.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Urges Governor to Accept All Stimulus Funds

State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond is urging Governor Sonny Perdue to accept about $220 million dollars in federal stimulus funds for the state's unemployment trust fund.

Governor Perdue has signaled that he might turn down some of the money.

Thurmond said today at the state capitol Georgia's unemployment trust fund is fine - for now.

But as unemployment in Georgia rises, Thurmond is worried that it might not last.

"If this economy continues to deteriorate, I am concerned about the future solvency of our trust fund in 2009 and I'm committed to and I believe we need the $220 million dollars..."

Governor Perdue says if the state accepts the money, Georgia will be forced to expand its unemployment benefits long term.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gov. Perdue: State Transportation System Is Broken

State lawmakers announced new legislation Thursday that would overhaul Georgia's transportation system.

Governor Sonny Perdue says the transportation system in Georgia is broken. That's why he, House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle are joining forces to combine two state agencies into one - the State Transportation Authority.

Perdue says right now, the state is likely losing money because of poorly managed projects and too much gridlock on the streets. But he believes the new agency will create stronger oversight and accountability.

"It will abandon the scattered approach that spreads resources too thin and will instead focus the investment that will actually move the needle on congestion and job creation."

Mismanagement at the current Department of Transportation has left the agency millions of dollars in debt with hundreds of projects unfinished.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More Budget Cuts And Money For Homeowners

The state budget shortfall is growing as Governor Perdue signs a bill giving homeowners property tax relief for this year.

Governor Perdue agreed today to give the $200 to $300 dollar grants for now.
But they won’t be there next year unless the state has a surplus.

Perdue says the state can afford the grants this year because of the economic stimulus package.

But the governor also adjusted revenue projections for the year saying they are down an additional 450 million dollars over the 2.2 billion dollar shortfall already in the budget.

Perdue sais he will take 200 million out of the state rainy day fund to shore up his priorities.
They include public safety, healthcare and education.

The governors is ordering state agencies to cut spending by an additional 1 percent.

Many are already furloughing employees as they had to cut of up to 10 percent this years.

Hear the story here.

State Leaders Want to Gut DOT

State leaders are considering a plan that would combine the State Road and Tollway Authority and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority into a new entity. It would create long and short-term statewide transportation plans.

Members would be appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House.

This would completely scrap the responsibilities of the Georgia Department of Transportation Board. They are currently responsible for handling the state’s $2 billion annual transportation budget.

Valarie Edwards reports here on the proposal.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

State and Local Officials Await Federal Stimulus Package

State and local officials are banking that the federal stimulus package coming out of Washington will help ailing budgets across Georgia. The state could get billions of dollars. Lawmakers say they are ready to see some hard numbers.

State Senator Jack Hill from Reidsville says Georgia could win big if two parts of the bill come through.

“The piece that I've watched more closely than the total package was the Medicaid reimbursement increase piece which will certainly help Georgia as we've had an increase in our Medicaid enrollment and the cash which may be as - I haven't seen the final figures - but could be $500 million in '09 and maybe $700 in '10."

Over in the House, the outlook is not as optimistic. Representative Fran Millar from Dunwoody questions whether some of the proposals are even going to stimulate Georgia’s economy.

“So the idea of the stimulus package is to create jobs and they said shovel ready projects... well I don't know how many projects are going to turn out of this conference report...We’ll see, I guess at the end of the day.”

Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley says that for local officials, the main question is who’s going to decide how the money is spent.

“We've been told that it will at least trickle down - whether it has to come through the state or not. But we've also been told we can directly lobby that money, and we’ll certainly talk with our congressman to see what needs that we can put in for, what we qualify for, what we can get.”

Democrats in Washington are trying to get more Republican support before putting the amended bill up for vote. As it stands now, most Georgians would see a $400 tax credit, while most couples in the state would get $800 in relief.

-By Carl Zornes

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fate of Homeowners' Tax Grants Hangs in Limbo

State lawmakers are holding back a bill from governor's desk that keeps homeowners' tax grants for this year. But Governor Sonny Perdue says finding the money to fund the grants will come at a price.

The grants would be worth $200-$300 to homeowners. But Perdue told county commissioners Tuesday the grants just don't work. Speaking at a luncheon for the Association of County Commissioners in Georgia, Perdue says the original intent of the grants was to entice counties to keep property taxes low. And that, he says, hasn't happened.

If the state does find the $428 million to fund the grants, Perdue says everyone would feel the cuts.

"And the end result will be less money for education, healthcare, public safety, and other programs vital to your communities. That's not a threat in any way. I'm just telling you. There's not a spare $428 million in this budget I've submitted."

County commissioners say they were promised the money for the grants last year, and the governor should follow through.

-By Carl Zornes

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Transportation Funding Hits Roadblock in General Assembly

The State Senate this week passed a regional transportation funding bill that would allow groups of counties to band together and vote on whether they want a penny tax for their own transportation needs.

The idea, however, is running into problems in the State House. House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said today that his chamber prefers funding that would benefit all of Georgia’s transportation needs.

“We’ve been saying from the beginning we need a statewide transportation plan and initiative. Transportation’s just not fixing congestion in Atlanta.”

Keen says smaller counties don’t have enough of a revenue base to get enough money for roads in their area. The Atlanta business community is lobbying hard for the regional Senate approach because it would be the fastest way to improve metro Atlanta gridlock that, they say, hurts business in the state.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Good News (for now) for HOPE Scholarship Recipents

College students who get the HOPE scholarship will have a better chance of having their book fees covered under legislation passed in the state House today.

Under current law, if the lottery-funded reserves drop by even just one dollar, the HOPE scholarship would pay less for books. For this year and next, the reserves are fine.

But Representative Ben Harbin from Evans worries that demand for the scholarship is up while revenues have flattened. He says that could bring down the reserves.

"I think probably 2011 we would've seen the book allowances cut in half the first year, eliminated the second year, and then the student fees gone the third year."

To prevent that, the House unanimously passed a bill that would put percentages to those cuts. Only when the reserves dropped by 8% would book funding be cut in half. At 16%, the scholarship would no longer cover books. And if the reserves took a 25% hit, student fees would be eliminated from funding as well.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

-By Carl Zornes

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Transportation Bill Sails Through Senate

The State Senate passed a transportation bill Tuesday that is favored by Atlanta business groups and takes a regional approach to funding projects.

It would leave the decision to raise taxes up to voters. Yet the bill is designed with Metro Atlanta in mind. The area already has a ten county region. The bill aims to let those counties charge a one percent sales tax to fund transportation projects. Other counties would vote on the measure individually or as a group of neighboring counties.

Senator Kasim Reed from Atlanta says improving the state’s roads and traffic problems is key to growing the state.

Reid: “This bill is about job creation and maintaining metro-Atlanta’s dominance and our state’s dominance as a place where business can grow, work and thrive.”

Atlanta business groups like the senate bill because they believe the projects would ease congestion and aide the economy. The House, for it's part, prefers a statewide tax that funds designated projects across Georgia. That plan would cost twenty five billion dollars over ten years.

-By Carl Zornes

Monday, February 2, 2009

Republican vow to balance budget without federal help

Georgia State Republican leaders are snubbing the massive federal bailout package saying they’ll balance the shrinking state budget without Washington’s help. All of Georgia’s republican U.S. House Representatives voted against the stimulus package. Even though the state is facing a 2.2 billion dollars budget shortfall.

Meanwhile on the state level, Republicans budget writers are not waiting for federal who are writing the state budget stand firmly with their congressional counterparts. Chip Rogers is the state Senate majority leader. He says the stimulus package sends the wrong message.

“My fear is that what we're going to see is a rewarding of bad behavior, and that's not uncommon out of our federal government,” Rogers says. “You're going to take states like California and New York who have done an absolute miserable job balancing their budget and reward them for their bad behavior by bailing them out, whereas states like Georgia and Indiana and places that have done a good job and have been fiscally prudent- we're ultimately going to pay the price.”

So Georgia budget writers are forging ahead. They’ve already spent 11 days on the budget. According to the constitution they have 29 left. And Roger’s says lawmakers will not take a break and wait for federal help.

“Regardless of what congress does, we need to handle Georgia's business. And the longer we wait, particularly with fiscal year 09 amended budget, every day that goes by there is less money and less flexibility. “

One thing Rogers and fellow republicans vowed to do is find $428 Million dollars at least this year to fund the Homestead exemption grants which save homeowners about 2 to 300 dollars a year. Senate President pro temp Tommie Williams says state employees may need to work less to make ends meet.

“You can't get to 428 million dollars without...without furloughs. And frankly, many of the agencies are already furloughing, so we'll...we'll look throughout the budget and those that we can furlough we will,” Williams says.

He vowed that public safety and the prison system would not be required to furlough. He also says that should Congress pass a stimulus plan that includes money for Georgia, he would like to spend it on Transportation.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Friday, January 30, 2009

Homeowners Could Get Tax Relief... For Now

The state House passed a bill today that would prevent homeowners from receiving delinquent tax notices for now… But it almost ensures higher property tax bills in the future.

Governor Sonny Perdue wants to cut $428 million in Homeowners' Tax Relief Grants this year to help fill a $2.2 billion budget shortfall.

But in a vote mostly along party lines, House Republicans want to make sure the state makes good on its promise to fund the grants... for now.

House Bill 143 also ties the relief grant to the state’s budget in the future. If the state has a deficit, there wouldn't be a grant to homeowners.

Republican House Majority Leader Jerry Keen says the bill will fix the homeowners' tax grant problem once and for all.

“We are trying for the first time to bring some reason, some common sense, but more importantly accountability and predictability to this system.”

But Democratic Representative Doug McKillip says the state should make good on its word to continue to provide the grants, which range from $200-$300.

“Ladies and gentlemen, a promise made is a debt unpaid… We owe the $265 to every one of them for ‘08, we must give it to them for ‘09… It is what we need to do…"

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration

-By Carl Zornes

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Proposed Bills to Curb Sexual Exploitation of Children

State Senator Renee Untermanl

To help stop the exploitation, Unterman and State Representative Amy Carter plan to introduce a bill that would increase the minimum age of erotic dancers from 18 to 21. They also want to change an existing law to allow anyone, not just parents or caregivers, to report sexual child abuse.

The two other committee members, State Representative Calvin Hill and State Senator Jack Murphy, say they’ll introduce a bill in their respective chambers that will put a $3 to $5 entrance fee at the door of strip clubs. That fee, they say, would help fund rehabilitation centers for kids who were sexually exploited.

-By Carl Zornes

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lawmakers Want Access to Food Test Results

Federal officials apparently evoked homeland security law in order to get access to internal plant documents at the Peanut Corporation of America Blakely facility.

They revealed that routing quick tests on several occasions showed the presence of salmonella bacteria. Oscar Garrison with the Georgia Department of agriculture says current law does not require companies to share such information with state investigators.

“We don’t want to discourage internal testing But if companies do the testing, which we want require them to do, then they need to make those results available to us particularly when they find excessive problems,” Garrison says.

As a result State lawmakers are currently drafting a bill that would require companies to hand over internal test results to public inspectors. Meanwhile FDA officials have left the plant in blakely and moved on to the companies Virginia.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

School Nurses Fight to Keep Funding

 Student and school nurses meet at State Capitol

School nurses were lobbying hard at the State Capitol Tuesday, hoping to dissuade lawmakers from eliminating their budget.

Governor Sonny Perdue proposes a $30 million cut for school nurses from next school year’s budget. But a spokesperson from his office says schools will have the flexibility to keep the program using local and other state funding.

Joanne Giel is a school nurse and the president of the Georgia Association of School Nurses. She says because it will be up to local school districts to fund the program, the future of school nurses in Georgia is in jeopardy.

“It may mean a significant loss to their school nurse program if not the elimination.”

It's unclear how many districts would be to keep the program alive.

The cuts come as lawmakers look for ways to fill a $2.2 billion hole in the state’s budget.

-By Carl Zornes

Photo courtesy of Dave Bender

Tight Budget Pushes Other Issues Aside

 State Senator Bill Hamrick

The Georgia State Senate is taking another crack at passing a transportation plan endorsed by Atlanta Business Groups.

The mood at the state capitol this year is somber. That's mainly because of the 2.2 billion dollar budget.

Almost non existant this session are the divisive issues like immigration or gun control. That's because lawmakers are literally too busy trying to deal with it. Georgia Hooks served in the State legislature for 29 years. This year he says is different from all others.

"It's a strange situation," he says. " I don't think I've seen anything quite like this, but we'll make the best of it."

Hooks is trying to stay optimistic in light of the massisve shortfall in the current budget. He says with cuts everywhere lawmakers rarely talk about anything else.

"When you look at the amount of red ink we have that's cutting through education, health care, public safety it has all the state lawmakers pre-occupied with that."

Gone seem to be the hot topics of years past. Remember gun control and Speaker Richardson's push to eliminate property taxes last year? Or how about immigration, School Vouchers, Sunday Alcohol Sales and more gun legislation? Such social topics are pushed to the sidelines this year says State Senator Bill Hamrick, a Republican from Carrollton. He sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"It really is mentally draining when you work on this in the legislature all day and then you go home and talk to people in the grocery store who have been laid off and ask you for help in writing a letter to someone they've applied to," he says.

Hamrick says lawmakers have no appetite this year to get into issues that seem a little less urgent than people's livelihood. And those issues he says include Immigration and gun control.

Some lawmakers are banking on money from Washington to help them through this budget year and take the pressure off. Other are working on Governor Perdue's recommended budget, which so far includes no new federal funds.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Monday, January 26, 2009

Transportation top issue for State Senate

The Georgia State Senate is taking another crack at passing a transportation plan endorsed by Atlanta Business Groups.

The current plan is very similar to a proposal that failed in the Senate last year--- it would allow voters in regions to decide whether they would want a 1 cent transportation sales tax. Senate Republican Majority Leader, Chip Rodgers says the plan puts the power of funding transportation projects in the voters hands.

"We are certainly open to working with the house," Rodgers says. "If they have got a better plan, we’re all ears and, we’re certainly happy to incorporate it."

Last year The plan was criticized by some rural and conservative senators as a road to higher taxes. Those concerns helped kill that bill in the last hour of last year's session. Rodgers says he believes those concerns have been worked out.

Jeff Mullis agrees. The Republican state senator from Chickamauga says Senate Leadership is committed to passing the bill this year.

"You know, transportation is also the Lieutenant Governor’s priority in the General Assembly this year. He’s made no bones about it since the last session," Mullis says. " So hopefully with the Governor’s Office we’ll find a solution."

Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle caught a lot of heat after the bill's failure last year. For it's part, the state House is now pushing a plan that is much more statewide in scope, but could make it harder to fund the metro atlanta projects. Rodgers says negotiations will continue through the session.

-By John Sepulvado

Friday, January 23, 2009

DHR Commissioner Details Budget Pain

State budget writers today heard from the heads of Georgia's social services and health care.

B.J. Walker addressed lawmakers this morning. She’s in charge of the largest state agency, the Department of Human Resources. And it’s where the state budget crisis might be felt the most.

Walker has to manage an agency budget of around $3.8 billion. Her department was hit by the budget-ax last summer, and it’s bracing for more in the Governor’s recommendations for the next fiscal year.

"Given the times we’re in and what we have to work with, I’m comfortable the Governor put us through a rigorous enough process that what he has put on the table, is something I can figure out how to make work."

But, Walker did admit to lawmakers Friday the challenge of "making it work" will be tougher with heavier across-the-board cuts to come in fiscal budget year 2010.

Last summer, DHR began one-day-a-month furloughs for a bulk of its 19,000 employees. The state hopes the move saves more than $100-million. And more furloughs could be on the way. Cutbacks are everywhere in the department, with money being pulled from all services, such as children and family services, and programs for the elderly.

Mental health services are in the firing line also. The state just recently signed an agreement with federal officials promising the troubled system will be vastly improved in the next five years. The obvious question today to Walker--how to do that, given budget cutbacks?

"We know that we’ll probably need some sort of resources at some point. But we have not fully calculated what that need is at this time...we’re working that through right now, and I’m sure we’ll be bringing some ideas about that at some point."

Walker did say the option of privatizing at least a portion of the mental health system is still an option--if it makes sense fiscally.

As budget committee hearings concluded at the Capitol today, Walker may have delivered the best line in summing-up how she’s trying to manage her department’s budget.

"It is my intent to go through these times not worrying about is it raining, or worrying about how to get out of the rain, but it’s my intent to figure out how you can dance in it."

-By Edgar Treiguts

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Governor Not Counting on Federal Money

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue

During budget hearings at the capitol today Governor Perdue said he went through his budget like a surgeon cutting out everything that's not needed. He says he is not banking on extra federal help to balance the budget.

"There's a lot of rumors out there now," he said, "but nobody is cutting any check."

Perdue says he doesn't have the money to fund the Homeowners tax relief grant which costs the state over $420 million each year. That means local governments may be forced to raise property taxes and homeowners could see their bills go up by $200 to $300 in some places. Perdue says he turned over every stone but couldn't find the money.

"If you can find a rock we haven't looked under," he told lawmakers, "then let's open it up together and I will rejoice with you."

Georgia faces a $2.2 billion budget shortfall this year and state economist Kenneth Heaghney warned lawmakers that things may not look up until later this year. He used words like "skyrocketing unemployment," "deteriorating labor market" and "sharply falling corporate growth" to describe Georgia's economy. Heaghney says Georgia, like the nation is in a deep recession.

"The average recession in the post World War II era is 10 months. We're already in it for 13," Heaghney testified before the joint house and senate appropriations committee.

Heaghney says the federal stimulus package and monetary policy on the federal level could help Georgia's economy later in the year. But he warned that any recovery would be weak.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Budget Hearings begin today at the state Capitol

Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Hill

It’s the time when State Department heads go before lawmakers and justify their spending.

Georgia is 2.2 billion dollars short and Governor Perdue’s proposal includes at least a 10 percent cut for most agencies. Most of the state’s money goes toward education and health care.

Senate Appropriations committee chair Jack Hill warned his colleagues that budget negotiations will be tough this year.

“This is a very sobering process, but still intermediate and long range we’re going to be O.K.,” Hill says. “Georgia is going to recover; we just don’t know where the bottom is.”

Hill warned that the state has to be conservative in its spending pattern until a recovery is in progress. Budget hearings will run through Friday and lawmakers will continue the legislative session on Monday.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lawmakers leave Capitol Armed with Budget Numbers.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen

State Lawmakers are heading home for a long weekend. They'll spend part of it combing through Governor Perdue's budget recommendations and will field calls from worried constituents.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen from St. Simons says he's already heard from his grandson's school nurse and his tax commissioner. They're not happy with proposed budget cuts to education and the elimination of the homeowner tax relief grant to local governments. Without those grants some homeowners could pay 2 to 300 dollars more in property taxes. Keen says he wants to find a way to preserve the grants but warns that it will not be easy.

"It has to be a cooperative effort between both the legislative and the executive branch," he says. "Without that I don't know how to get there unless we have wholesale closure and shut down of departments."

Keen warns that Georgia's 2 billion plus budget shortfall will be felt throughout the state. Lawmakers will begin Budget hearing next Wednesday. One lawmaker warned that if the budget were a patient it would not be a question of whether to amputate or not, but rather which leg to take off.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Monday, January 19, 2009

Education Cuts tough, but manageable Cox says.

State School Superintendent Kathy Cox

State School Superintendent Kathy Cox says Education cuts in the state budget will have little impact in the classroom.

Speaking to a joint house and senate education committee Kathy Cox outlined her department’s priorities for a year with education cuts expected to top 400 million dollars. Cox says school boards will get some leeway in how they spend state money.

For example graduation coach funding could go to other school needs and classes can be slightly larger. This flexibility Cox says should see schools through the economic downturn with little interruption.

"I think it would mean slightly more students in a class," Cox says. "But for most students I don't think they’ll see much difference."

Cox says she support the Governor’s efforts despite a tight budget to push for a merit pay system for teachers and bonuses for high performing principals. She’s also pushing higher salaries for math and science teachers, because she says Georgia Desperately needs them. Cox will outline more details about education budget next week during budget hearing.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Governor says tough budget year ahead

Governor Sonny Perdue

Governor Sonny Perdue was welcomed by the full General Assembly to the State Capitol’s House chambers this morning. He delivered his annual State of the State address to outline where Georgia goes from here, in the face of a massive budget shortfall topping $2 billion.

Perdue said "we must not allow ourselves to be trapped in a short-term mindset where rash decisions result in dire long-term consequences."

Perdue in his 33-minute address told lawmakers some of the budget-pain could be relieved by tapping the state’s reserves for $50-million now, and another $408-million next fiscal year.

While light on specifics in certain areas, he gave particulars on some others, such as Georgia’s Medicaid funding gap. While some federal help could come in a stimulus package proposed by the incoming Obama-adminstration, Perdue said waiting is not an option:

"For those of you who would like to sit back and wait for Washington--we’ve waited before if you remember. And while I’m hopeful we’ll receive additional funds from the federal government, when I had the obligation of putting this budget together, I did not have the option to budget for money that may never materialize."

To that end, Perdue introduced legislation designed for Georgia’s healthcare system to share the burden in replenishing Medicaid:

"My budget will reflect in an accompanying bill that we will propose...a 1.6-percent fee on hospitals and health insurance providers to fill the hole in Medicaid and to do what the health care community has asked of us to do for so long."

Another centerpiece of Perdue’s budget proposal would fund critical new infrastructure and further support Work Ready programs in the state to spur 20,000 new jobs. The Governor says the $1.2 billion construction borrowing package would be backed by Georgia’s AAA bond rating:

"In the past, we’ve often funded the design-phase of a project one year and the construction at a later date. This year’s package will fast-track some of those. We'll feature many projects in which both design and construction are funded in the same year, ensuring a more timely completion.”

Other points of highlight and proposals from the Governor's address:

- Transportation: Perdue says he shares a vision with Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson to devise a plan to improve the state's needs. Perdue would back the right funding plan. He also is committed to reform of the Department of Transportation.

- Education: Legislation to ensure local school boards act properly. Perdue also wants lawmakers to pass legislation to reward principals of improving schools with bonuses, and award merit pay to top teachers.

- Trauma care: In conjunction with Medicaid fee proposal, the Super Speeder legislation would provide $60 million for the sustaining and enhancement of trauma care in Georgia.

- Perdue's budget proposal calls for no pay raises for state employees and teachers next year ; $428 million in property tax grants would be eliminated, possibly leading to property tax increases for Georgians.

-By Edgar Treiguts

Photo courtesy of Carl Zornes

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Democrats Critical of Budget Cuts

House Minority Leader Dubose Porter

Leaders of the House Democratic Caucus criticized Republican Governor Sonny Perdue’s proposals for the 2009 and 2010 state budgets.

House Minority Leader Dubose Porter says the lack of priorities in the budget cuts is not a sound way to fix the state’s $2 billion shortfall.

“Parents and teachers are calling for help for our schools, but instead we build boat ramps…" Porter said in reference to the Governor's Go Fish initiative from last year. " In Georgia today, law enforcement is working overtime to keep us safe," Porter continued, " due to across the board cuts our law enforcement officers are stretched almost to the breaking point."

Perdue's budget cut proposal also calls for the elimination of property tax grants to homeowners. Porter calls the move the biggest property tax increase in Georgia history.

-By Carl Zornes

Photo courtesy of Carl Zornes

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lawmakers are willing to fund transportation, but their approach differs

House Speaker Glenn Richardson

Georgia’s political leaders agree that they want to solve Georgia’s transportation problems, but they differ on the approach. House Speaker Glenn Richardson is not keen on the idea, favored by Atlanta Business Leaders, to set up regions that tax themselves to fund their transportation problems. "Transportation is not an Atlanta problem, it's a Georgia problem," Richardson told business leaders at the annual Eggs and issues Breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

"Its time we address transportation on a statewide basis," he said.

Governor Perdue said he also favors a statewide approach. One idea, to levy a penny sales tax for transportation, however, seems to be out. Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle says it won’t pass the Senate. His chamber, he says, favors a regional tax approach. Transportation Lobbyists say there is plenty of room for compromise. They say they’re encouraged that this year at least everyone seems willing to fund transportation despite a tough budget year.

-By Susanna Capelouto

Photo courtesy of Georgia House of Representatives

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Unity Begins the 2009 Legislative Session

Porter Dubose

Democrats in the Georgia State Legislature opened the first day of the 2009 session with a sign of unity. With Republicans holding a majority of seats in the House, Republican Speaker Glenn Richardson was re-elected – but not with the usual “yeas” or “nays.” He was elected by process of acclamation, where no formal vote was held.

Minority Leader Dubose Porter says Democrats in Georgia are taking a page from President-elect Barack Obama. "We, at this important crossroads in Georgia's history, want to show just as our president-elect in Washington is putting the country's welfare ahead of partisan politics, we too, the Democratic caucus in Georgia, put aside the partisan rancor and ask that we move forward with the work of this state."

The gesture did not go unnoticed by Republicans. Majority Leader Jerry Keen says that both sides of the House need to work together as the Democratic-controlled government will soon begin helping the states' ailing budgets.

-By Carl Zornes

Photo courtesy of Georgia House of Representatives