Following the news that state revenues were down in December, Georgia lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for a General Assembly session where budget-cutting will be the primary focus.
Though Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to revise the state’s revenue estimate when he addresses lawmakers this week, predictions now loom of a shortfall of more than $2 billion, roughly 10 percent of the state’s $21 billion budget.
December revenue collections were $145 million lower than a year earlier. The most telling number is sales tax collections, which are down by 9.7 percent. Corporate income tax collections were down by 17.3 percent.
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who began his legislative career in 1995, is bracing for a tough session.
"It will be the hardest session in many years," Rogers said. "It’s hard enough when there is revenue coming in. I can’t imagine doing one with the cuts we’ve got to do."
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Chestnut Mountain, said last week that education and Medicaid would be spared the brunt of the cuts. However, education represents 45 percent of the state budget and any cuts for instructional purposes has Rogers worried.
"The Gainesville school system, in particular, cannot afford anymore cuts," Rogers said.
City schools have been trying to recover from a deficit estimated at $5.8 million.
Also to be determined is the funding for badly needed state transportation projects. An outside audit of the Department of Transportation was ordered after
Commissioner Gena Evans discovered the agency had overspent on numerous highway projects without the funds to pay for them.
The legislature is also awaiting Perdue’s new budget proposal, which is expected to include $1.2 billion in building projects financed with long-term bonds. Perdue believes construction project will help jump-start the state’s ailing economy.
Among the proposed projects is an academic building for Gainesville State College. The state used bond funds to design the building in the current budget. Typically, the construction funds follow in the next year’s budget; however, this year is likely to be anything but typical.
Also awaiting further consideration is funding for Don Carter State Park on Lake Lanier in North Hall. The legislature provided design funds for the project in the current budget, but the request to build the park comes as the Department of Natural Resources is proposing to shutter some of its lesser-used facilities.
Lawmakers admit they’re getting an earful from proponents of some budget items.
"The revenues are decreasing, and for us to keep a balanced budget, we’ve got to decrease spending," state Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said. "We’re looking at each department and going line by line. Each line means something to someone."
Unlike previous years, the legislature is going to work five days a week, at least through February. In previous sessions, the sessions lasted just four days a week, allowing lawmakers from the southern portion of the state more time for travel.
The legislature will adjourn the week of Jan. 19 for budget hearings, something no one is looking forward to.
"It’s going to be a painful time for a lot of people," Rogers said.