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Legislature 2009: Will budget cuts do?

Local projects saved, but concerns may force a special session

POSTED: April 5, 2009 12:36 a.m.

ATLANTA — There is an excitement akin to the last day of school when the Georgia General Assembly reaches its final day.

This year, it was marked by a sigh of relief as lawmakers sliced the current state budget and passed a pared-down version for the 2010 fiscal year that begins in July.

"It was the most intense and reactionary session I’ve ever seen," said state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. "It all stems from the budget issues we’ve had. When you’ve had to cut $3 billion dollars out of the current and next budget, it’s very difficult."

But one Hall County lawmaker is wondering if that is enough.

State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has some worries that
lawmakers might have to return later this year in a special session to make more cuts.

"A lot of us are concerned that the budget we’ve just passed is not going to hold," Collins said. "I think there is chance we could come back (for a special session), but I’m hopeful we don’t and the economy is doing better."

Gone from this budget are local grants, direct state payments for everything from police cars to sewer pumps. For those who received them, it was an example of lawmakers bringing home the bacon. Others see that bacon as pork.

But there were a few regional beneficiaries in the budget, mostly from long-term construction projects funded by bonds.

Among the projects was the full $31.2 million for an academic building at Gainesville State College. House budget writers tried to whittle $6.2 million from the building, but the Senate restored the entire amount.

Rogers, who engaged in a verbal skirmish with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle earlier in the week, gave Cagle credit for the save.

"My hat’s off to the lieutenant governor for putting the money back in," Rogers said.

The legislature provided $14 million in bond funds to design and construct Don Carter State Park on Lake Lanier in North Hall. The park is named for civic leader Don Carter, who served on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, including stints as chairman. Carter, who lives in Gainesville with his wife, Lucille, was an advocate for the state park system.

The budget also includes $12.6 million for a new Georgia Poultry Laboratory in Oakwood. The facility will replace the 50-year-old existing building.

"This is a great thing and is much needed," said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. Giles and the federation’s president-emeritus, Abit Massey, had been working on the project for a number of years.

The new laboratory will offer the latest in biosecurity. The laboratory currently tests samples for every poultry flock in Georgia for disease, including avian influenza.

Also in the final budget: $6 million to renovated a classroom building at North Georgia Technical College in Clarkesville and $16.4 million for building renovations at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega.

The 2009 session brought in a large group of newly elected lawmakers from Northeast Georgia. A new state senator and three representatives took their place in January.

"It was tough settling in," said state Sen. Jim Butterworth, R-Clarkesville. "The toughest thing was getting to know the individuals, their personalities and the process. Once I got in the groove and built some relationships and friendships, things settled down."

Butterworth said a number of senators were mentors to him during the session, including state Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, who sits next to Butterworth on the Senate floor.

State Rep. Michael Harden, R-Eastanollee, had worked as a staff assistant to the late U.S Rep. Charlie Norwood of Augusta, but said it was much different when he became a lawmaker.

"It’s a baptism by fire," Harden said as the session ended Friday. "It’s a slow process in the beginning, when everything is working through the committees. Then, at the end, it’s like being shot out of a cannon. It’s definitely the most interesting Friday night I’ve spent in a long time."

For Hawkins, who just two years ago was completing his first session, it has been a meteoric rise. He was named chairman of the State and Local Government Operations committee and sponsored a number of bills this session.

"We’ve passed some good legislation and some good things for health care," Hawkins said. "The budget has been tough. We cut any kind of waste out of government. Unfortunately, some employees will get furloughed, but when the economy comes back we’ll be in a lot better shape."

Hawkins was particularly proud of final passage in the House Friday of a bill that grants sovereign immunity to nurses working in free clinics, like the Good News Clinic in Gainesville.

He hopes funds used to pay liability insurance will soon be used to buy medicines for those who use the clinic.



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