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Lawmakers break to mull budget
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It won’t be a break involving drinks with tiny umbrellas, but state lawmakers plan to take a two-week hiatus to get their minds around a comparatively sized spending plan.

In a highly unusual move, legislators voted Thursday to take a break from making laws so those responsible for shaping the state’s budget can address what is expected to be a $1 billion shortfall for next fiscal year.

Members of both the Senate and the House appropriations committees will meet as one over the next two weeks to make crucial decisions about what state programs must stay and what will disappear next fiscal year. Normally, the two chambers meet separately and hammer out their differences after the fact.

January marked the 14th straight month state revenues have declined. For nearly a year, state agencies and departments have been able to slide by on across-the-board spending cuts and mandatory furloughs. But lawmakers are now looking for more permanent solutions that will mean cutting jobs and programs.

State Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, said lawmakers are planning to “tremendously downsize” government programs. The two-week break will, hopefully, head off the need for a special session to deal with further declines in revenues later in the year, he said.

Pearson serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“This is not temporary; it’s really a new paradigm for where we are,” Pearson said.

More than one lawmaker who spoke to The Times Thursday mentioned combining agencies and eliminating programs.

“I think you’re going to see all ideas on the table,” said State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

Collins, who serves as secretary of the House Appropriations Committee, says the state’s budget planners will hold hearings early next week with heads of state agencies and departments to “make sure we are properly defining the role of government.”

“I’m going to be down here every day next week, knee-deep in budgets,” Collins said.

State Rep. James Mills, who serves on both the House Ways and Means and Appropriations committees, said lawmakers have a tough job ahead of them, but also an opportunity.

“We are going to have to make some very, very painful cuts,” said Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain. “But the good side is that it will mean smaller government and less spending.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed an $18.2 billion budget for the coming fiscal year. He projected 4 percent revenue growth, which some now say may be far too optimistic.

The governor balanced the budget by proposing a pair of unpopular proposals: a tax on hospitals and health plans and siphoning money from the state’s environmental loan fund.

Republican legislators have been cool to both plans, particularly the hospital fee. Perdue has said it’s needed to avoid deep cuts to Medicaid. But many of the state’s ruling Republicans have pledged to balance the budget without hiking taxes.

Together the two proposals are expected to bring in roughly $650 million. If legislators reject the proposals they either have to make cuts in that amount or find additional revenue to fill the hole.

Georgia is required by law to balance its budget.

In addition, federal stimulus dollars for Medicaid are set to dry up midway through the year. Unless Congress delivers additional money from Washington, that will be a hit of some $380 million.

“We have a difficult, difficult budget task ahead of us,” House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said.

House Speaker David Ralston said that Appropriations and only three other committees - Transportation, Natural Resources and Ways and Means - are authorized to meet during the next two weeks. No other members are authorized to receive the $173 per diem for legislative work days, Ralston said.

Also on Thursday, the state Senate approved a $17.4 billion midyear spending plan that forces most state employees and teachers to take three more unpaid furlough days. That budget covers the remainder of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

It cuts $1.2 billion in spending to keep pace with plunging revenues. Most state agencies have been hit with cuts of about 8 percent.

Mental hospitals, which are under fire from the U.S. Department of Justice, received one of the only spending increases.

The budget passed the Senate 44-6 on Thursday. It must now return to the House to iron out differences with the version that passed in that chamber last week.

And while state lawmakers will spend the next two weeks hunkered down over the next fiscal year’s spending plan, Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said he wouldn’t be surprised if they had to revise the current budget another time before the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

“Obviously, we were just $240 million short in January, so the budget’s based on hitting numbers between now and June, which is the end of the year,” Hawkins said. “The way things are going, we’ll have to see - we’ll have to be flexible -I mean, we might have to go back and revisit that, too.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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