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.

Click on the player below to hear this story.

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