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The state’s top issues

POSTED: January 7, 2012 11:30 p.m.

Budget

Legislators again are preparing to cut state spending to meet their primary goal of balancing Georgia's budget.

Last year, legislators had a $1.5 billion budget deficit hanging over them at the Gold Dome. The year before, it was $1 billion, and in 2009 it was $2 billion.

Georgia's revenue numbers are modestly increasing, though.

House Speaker David Ralston said he is "hopeful" the cuts of 2012 won't be as severe as in recent years.

In the first five months of the state's current fiscal year, net revenue collections increased about 6.8 percent over the same time frame a year ago, which means about $427.5 million more has been collected from July through November over last year.

But no one's anywhere close to an expectation that state spending will reach pre-2008 levels any time soon.

Some, including Ralston, are even skeptical that state revenues will support such spending again.

Education

In addition to a new curriculum, a new high school diploma and career-based education coming down the pipeline, state education officials are wondering what the legislative session holds for charter school system funding.

A bill passed under former Gov. Sonny Perdue's tenure required all school systems to convert to either a charter system or an Investing in Educational Excellence system by 2013. Funding cuts to charter systems, including Gainesville City Schools, is facing opposition in the legislature, leaving systems unsure of their future.

Title 20, the state's biggest education law, is set to undergo additional revision, with special attention paid to classroom funding and whether personal electronics such as cellphones and tablets should be allowed as teaching tools.

Gambling

Voter support throughout Georgia for Sunday alcohol sales in 2011 have some talking about easing gambling restrictions next.

The Associated Press reported a study commissioned by the state lottery estimated the state could generate $1 billion a year from casinos in key areas around the state.

Betting on horse racing could also be explored. Supporters of expanding gambling efforts will argue easing restrictions could raise revenue for the state without raising taxes.

The discussion may not go far this year. Gov. Nathan Deal has come out in opposition of casino gambling.

Health care

State legislators are due to make a decision on federal mandates to create health insurance exchanges. As part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, states are required to set up a regulated health care marketplace for residents to compare options for health insurance.

However, with federal lawsuits still pending and Republican presidential candidates promising a repeal to the new health care law, there are some calling for stalling the process.

Others warn that if Georgia doesn't come up with some plan, the federal government could form a plan for the state without state lawmakers' input.

Immigration

Georgia earned its place in the national immigration debate last year, joining other states that took up their own laws to discourage illegal immigration.

Some parts of the law have been, at least temporarily, blocked by a federal judge. Others have been deemed an "unfunded mandate" by local government officials across the state who feel the law places an undue burden on them to ensure their employees or their beneficiaries are not in the country illegally.

While there's pressure from local government lobbyist groups to change the law and even a suggestion by the state's attorney general to make it more clear, lawmakers seem reluctant to make revisions.

Some say they'll seek minor tweaks. Others doubt the changes.

Open Records

Legislators could address public records laws regarding economic development. Currently, state agencies must reveal the identity and terms of agreements during the negotiation process of bringing in new businesses.

Proponents who want to change the law argue that Georgia's competitiveness is compromised when other states can see the incentives offered and outbid Georgia.

A 2005 state Senate bill to change the law failed.

Opponents argued those negotiations should be open to guarantee the public won't suffer from any closed deals.

Taxes

Tax reform promises to be one of the highlights of the legislative year, but even the legislators making that promise aren't sure how much they'll be able to accomplish in an election year.

Gov. Nathan Deal has already made it known he'd like to get rid of a sales tax charges to manufacturers for their energy use. There is also some talk of altering the income tax.

The name of the game seems to be a competitive tax code, geared toward attracting business and jobs.

No one has yet said how those changes in revenues might be neutralized. While some legislators say they're looking toward consumptive taxes over high income taxes, the lieutenant governor has already said he is against reinstating a sales tax on groceries.

Juvenile justice

Legislators are prepared to propose a bill that would revise and modernize provisions relating to juvenile proceedings. The bill is headed by state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, and if passed would rewrite the state's juvenile code.

A large focus of the bill is on procedures within the Division of Family and Children Services relating to the transitional care of children age 18 and older who are no longer required to remain under the state's care.

The code has not been updated in more than 40 years and is spread among multiple sections of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. The bill is intended to compact the juvenile code into a single section.

Water

For the first time in years, water may not be one of the highest priorities for Georgia's legislative leaders.

But it is waiting in the wings as one of the key ingredients to their goal of job growth.

A 2011 federal appeals court ruling bodes well for future access to Lake Lanier as a source of water.

And as state leaders await decisions from the U.S. Corps of Engineers on how that supply should be divided among stakeholders, they're going to focus on other issues that impact Georgia's economy this year.

Providing a stable water supply has ranked at the top of Gov. Nathan Deal's agenda since he came into office last year.

Last year, legislators paved the way for private investment in public construction of water supply infrastructure.

In 2011, as one of his first acts as governor, Deal set aside $300 million in an effort to provide alternatives to Lake Lanier throughout the course of his term as governor.

The money will be spent on any water supply project, including "reservoirs, wells, aquifer recharge or whatever the approach may be," Deal said.

For the upcoming fiscal year specifically, Deal's budget recommendation reserves about $37 million in spending on those projects, he said.

"We have to become less dependent on federally controlled reservoirs for water supply," Deal said.

Beyond tax incentives aimed at growing jobs, lawmakers say the state's infrastructure has to be improved to maintain long-term growth.

Transportation and water supplies are keys to those goals, said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Flowery Branch, because they are "quality of life" issues.

Transportation

This year, legislators say they're waiting on the outcome of a July 31 vote on a proposed 1-cent sales tax for road and transit projects before coming up with any other transportation solutions.

Voters statewide will decide whether to tack on a penny to their county's sales tax, but the tax will be decided in 12 established districts around the state.

The tax, for example, could pass in the 13-county Georgia Mountains district that includes Hall County but fail in Atlanta, or vice versa.

Supporters have hailed the tax as necessary to fix traffic congestion woes and boost economic development. Critics decry it comes at a bad time, piling on more financial burden for Georgia's residents during an economic downturn.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, secretary of the Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers are in a "wait-and-see pattern" with the transportation vote.

Gooch, who previously served on the Georgia Department of Transportation board, said there is no Plan B to the sales tax, at least one that would develop before the vote.

"There will have to be another plan devised," if it fails, he said. "Somebody will have to sit back down and say, ‘How do we fix this?' ... We could continue to look for ways to cut costs and overhead at DOT and other places, but I don't know if you could trim billions of dollars."

Beth Brown, spokeswoman for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said "there may be efforts to tweak (act) to ensure that all interest income from the tax is returned to the region in which it is generated."

Compiled by Ashley Fielding, Aaron Hall, Dallas Duncan and Patrick Stoker

 



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