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Collins sworn in as legislature turns to budget decisions
Homeowner tax grant, transportation among issues on table
Rep. Doug Collins is joined by his wife, Lisa, as he is sworn in to a second term in the state House by Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal. - photo by For The Times

State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, was sworn in for a second term in the state House on Friday morning.

Collins took his oath prior to beginning of the fifth day of the 2009 session. Collins returned late Wednesday from a four-month tour of duty as a chaplain with a U.S. Air Force Reserves unit in Iraq.

The oath was administered by Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, a high school classmate of Collins. The lawmaker's wife, Lisa, held the Bible during the brief ceremony.

"It was more special than two years ago," Collins said. "Judge Deal and I go back a long ways."
When the session convened, House Speaker Glenn Richardson noted Collins return to the Capitol and his House colleagues gave him a standing ovation.

The lawmakers held a brief session Friday before adjourning until Jan. 26.

Next week, the House Appropriations Committee will begin hearing from state department heads as it attempts to whittle $2.2 billion from the current year's budget.

State Rep. Amos Amerson, R-Dahlonega, a member of the budget-writing panel, said Friday that many of his House colleagues are balking at Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposal for reducing the budget, including elimination of a $428 million grant to Georgia homeowners.

"There are lots of representatives who are saying they will not go along with governor on the amended budget," Amerson said. "They want to force him to turn loose of the 2008 money."

Amerson said his home county of Lumpkin depends on homeowners for 92 percent of its property taxes.

"Lumpkin County is waiting for over $400,000 from the state. For their budget that's a lot of money," he said.

A state senator on Friday took the wraps off a bill that would permit regions — including one that would encompass 10 metro-Atlanta area counties — to band together to charge a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects.

Residents in the affected areas would have to vote to approve the tax hike, under the bill being pushed by the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Jeff Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga.

The plan is similar to one that fell just one vote short of passing in the final minutes of last year's legislative session.

It puts the Senate at odds with Richardson, who is supporting a plan that would levy an additional 1-cent sales tax statewide.

"Transportation is not an Atlanta problem; it's a Georgia problem," Richardson told business leaders at a legislative breakfast earlier this week.

The issue has opened an early rift among the state's ruling Republicans.

Perdue said the "speaker made some good points."

"I want a statewide solution to transportation as well," Perdue said.

But Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, suggested that a statewide sales tax would have a tough time passing in his chamber and suggested that he prefers a regional approach.

The issue has pitted lawmakers in metro Atlanta, which suffers from some of the worst commute times in the nation, against rural lawmakers, who balk at the idea of having to pay for the city's traffic problems.

Georgia's transportation spending has not kept up with its rapid population growth, much if it in and around Atlanta. And gas tax receipts, which pay for road projects, have been on the decline as the recession and the summer's high prices prompted some Georgians to pinch pennies at the pump.

Mullis' plan would create one 10-county region for metro Atlanta consisting of Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties. Other areas could combine to create their own regions.

After the appropriate local governing body creates a list of road and other transportation projects they would vote on whether to levy a 1-cent sales tax to fund them. If they vote yes, the proposal would go to Georgia voters in the region who must also endorse the tax hike.

"We're not doing this with a lot of fanfare," Mullis said Friday as he gathered signatures from senators willing to co-sponsor the plan.

"We just want to get it out early enough that it gets done," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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