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Crawford: Georgias politicians will give us more of the same
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Watching Georgia's politicians operate under the Gold Dome this year will be like watching a rerun of a TV episode you've already seen two or three times before.

This session of the General Assembly will seem very similar to the past two because lawmakers will again confront a huge budget deficit falling somewhere between $1.2 billion and $2 billion.

The economic downturn triggered by the real estate collapse of 2008 has already reduced the state budget by about $3 billion from its peak of two years ago. The loss of more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds will force legislators to make many more painful decisions in 2011.

Education and health care are the two biggest items of state spending, so those are the areas that are most likely to get cut again.

The new governor, Nathan Deal, alerted us last month that state employees may have to be laid off as a result of the budget reductions. Up to 20 percent of the 100,000 people who work for state government could be sent packing.

The revenue shortfalls could motivate the Republican-controlled General Assembly to take up issues normally not associated with Georgia Republicans.

Sunday package sales of beer and wine, which have long been opposed by Christian conservatives, appears to have a chance of winning legislative approval this session.

Deal said last week he would be willing to allow local governments to hold referendums on legalizing Sunday sales, a step that former governor Sonny Perdue stubbornly resisted throughout his administration.

Legalization of Sunday package sales would remove Georgia from the short list of states that still prohibit them and would bring in additional tax revenues as well.

The legalization of pari-mutuel wagering on horse races will also be pushed by a conservative Republican, Rep. Harry Geisinger of Roswell.

Gambling and horse racing are issues that have traditionally been promoted by liberal Democrats like former House member Bob Holmes of Atlanta, but Geisinger is touting his bill as one that could create jobs and generate new tax revenues.

Republican lawmakers will move to more familiar ground when they focus on legislation that targets undocumented immigrants, including an Arizona-style law that would authorize police to detain and hold for deportation persons they suspect are residing in Georgia illegally.

Other related bills would prohibit children brought to this country by undocumented parents from attending public colleges and require businesses to use a federal verification program to check the residency status of their employees.

Legislators may or may not have to deal with the recommendations that were finalized last week by a study committee that has been reviewing the state's tax code.

The Tax Reform Council recommended cutting the individual and corporate income tax rate from 6 percent to 4 percent, while making up the lost revenue by reinstating the sales tax on groceries and raising the excise tax on cigarettes.

Lawmakers may not have the stomach for taking on such a major sales tax increase, however, and House Speaker David Ralston has already suggested that this particular issue may not come up for a vote this year.

On top of making major cuts to funding for public schools, legislators will have to do something to shore up the financial soundness of the HOPE scholarship program, which is projected to run a deficit exceeding $300 million by fiscal year 2012.

The popular scholarship program is running low on money because the revenues generated by the Georgia Lottery cannot keep up with tuition increases passed by the Board of Regents.

There could be a lively debate this session between legislators who want to raise the performance standards for HOPE eligibility — possibly by requiring students to achieve a minimum score on the SAT — and lawmakers who want to cut back on HOPE benefits for students from upper-income families.

Most of the issues confronting the new governor and the legislators will involve taking something away from Georgians: a cut in benefits from the HOPE scholarships, for example, or layoffs of state employees as a local program is terminated.

Those aren't the kinds of things legislators want to brag about when they go back home to see their constituents, which means it will not be a fun session for them in Atlanta.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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