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