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Crawford: Will state lawmakers act like adults this year?

POSTED: January 15, 2009 1:00 a.m.

One of the advantages of being more than $2 billion in the hole is that it forces you to prioritize and focus on the things that really matter.

So it is with our state legislators as they gather in Atlanta this week to begin the latest chapter of the General Assembly.

In recent sessions we have seen lawmakers fighting openly, to the point where the House speaker yelled at the lieutenant governor to "be a man" and allow a vote on a tax break measure. Not to mention the time the speaker accused the governor of "baring his backside" on another tax issue.

No time for that kind of petty bickering this year. Georgia, like every other state, is in a deep budgetary hole aggravated by the worst economic recession in 75 years. Theoretically, that should mean the House and Senate will set aside their usual differences and try to work out a way to plug a revenue hole that could eventually exceed $2.5 billion.

"Challenging times have a way of bringing people together," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said.

Challenges? There are plenty of them to be worked out this session, including:

Tax cuts. You'll hear several lawmakers propose them, but as a practical matter, any tax cut just adds to the $2.5 billion budget deficit. Corporate CEOs and special interests may have to wait another year for their usual tax goodies.

Tax increases. Republicans claim they don't like them, but tax hikes may be unavoidable this year if the budget is to be brought into balance without wrecking state government.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has already floated a statewide provider tax on hospitals to raise money for Medicaid. Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, wants to raises taxes on cigarettes and Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Ambrose, would reinstate the sales tax on groceries. Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, even wants to tax patrons of strip clubs (a tax that might fall disproportionately upon legislators during the months of January, February and March).

Homeowners tax relief. To help balance the budget, Perdue will propose cutting $430 million in state grants to local governments that provided a small bump in property tax exemptions for homeowners. To offset this loss of a property tax break, the legislature could well approve a cap on yearly increases in property assessments.

Highway improvements. After failing last year to adopt a plan for raising funds to build new highways, legislators will try again this year. Their ability to get campaign contributions from business leaders in 2010 hinges upon their success.

Guns. Some lawmakers want to make it legal for anyone to carry a pistol in such public places as schools, churches, and mental hospitals. Cagle says he'll try to holster that particular idea.

Capital punishment. Frustrated by the inability to secure the death penalty for courthouse shooter Brian Nichols, lawmakers will try to authorize the imposition of the ultimate punishment through less-than-unanimous jury verdicts.

School vouchers. Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, a candidate for lieutenant governor, will continue his drive to expand the issuance of vouchers for students to attend private schools, a step that could further weaken the state's public school systems.

Health care. Another area of failure last year was the effort to upgrade Georgia's woefully inadequate network of trauma care hospitals. Lawmakers will try again on trauma care, as well reorganize the sprawling bureaucracy in the Department of Human Resources. Part of the DHR restructuring could include the privatization of mental hospitals.

Overshadowing all of those issues, of course, is the state budget and that $2.5 billion revenue shortfall. Major spending cuts will have to be enacted somewhere, a painful process that could eventually cause a breakdown of the goodwill that legislators bring into the session.

It would have been easier if the Republican leadership had called a special session last fall to start dealing with the budget cuts, but the gumption to do that just wasn't there.

"The ill-advised decision to not hold a special session to address the budget has left the Republican-dominated General Assembly with little choice other than falling in line like lemmings behind their leader," said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown.

Whether you call them lemmings or legislators, the pressure is now on them to make the decisions that will somehow get the state out of this mess.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service



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