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New faces represent Northeast Georgia
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Three new House members and one new senator will represent Northeast Georgia on Monday in the General Assembly.

All admit their new jobs come at a challenging time, as the state faces a $2 billion budget shortfall.

Stephen Allison of Blairsville, Rick Austin of Demorest and Michael Harden of Eastanollee will become the newest members of the Georgia House. Jim Butterworth of Clarkesville will join the ranks of the state Senate. All of the newcomers are Republicans.

Butterworth, 42, is no stranger to politics, having served as chairman of the Habersham County Commission. He defeated incumbent state Sen. Nancy Schaefer, R-Turnerville, who first entered the race for Congress from the 10th District before changing her mind and re-entering the race for her Senate seat.

"I’m very excited and honored to be in this position," Butterworth said. "The budget cuts are going to be front-page news. We are approaching the 10 percent tier cuts that the governor has designated. But even with that, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be."

Butterworth, an pilot for Delta Airlines, already has been named secretary of the Senate Economic Development Committee. He also will serve on the Veterans, Military and Homeland Security Committee, the Education and Youth Committee and the Retirement Committee.

He will be joined in the legislature by another former Habersham commissioner. Austin, 42, a biology professor at Piedmont College, was elected to the seat left open by the retirement of state Rep. Ben Bridges, R-Cleveland. His term on the Habersham commission ended at the new year.

While Austin admits the budget situation will be tough, he said his primary focus will be on education. He is drafting a bill related to the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests administered in public schools.

"Over 80 percent of the students who fail the CRCT both in the spring and the summer retest are being passed on (to the next grade)," Austin said. "This bill is going to make passing to the next grade a rare event for those who do not pass."

Allison, 37, is a Blairsville attorney. He defeated state Rep. Charles Jenkins, D-Blairsville in a close election in Rabun, Towns and Union counties and a portion of White County.

"I wish we were going in under different circumstances," said Allison, referring to the state budget crisis. "When you make a commitment to run, you don’t realize how circumstances in the world will affect what you’re going to do. I’m very excited. I just wish things were different."

Allison’s district has more state parks than any other House member. Along with Harden and Butterworth, he is preparing to fight for keeping the state fish hatchery at Lake Burton open. The Department of Natural Resources has proposed closing the facility, which the new lawmakers argue is important to trout fishing in the mountain region.

The agency also has proposed privatization of The Lodge at Smithgall Woods near Helen.

Harden, 28, a former aide to the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, defeated longtime state Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, for the seat serving Stephens, Banks and a portion of Habersham counties.

Like the others, he has heard from a number of constituents concerned over state cuts in the region. The state is proposing closing Travelers Rest, a stagecoach inn and plantation home preserved as a historic site in Stephens County.

"With the kind of shortfall we’re facing, $2 billion on a $21 billion budget, we’re talking about cuts of 10 percent or more and that’s unprecedented," Harden said. "It’s going to be a huge cut."

The three new House members will not receive their committee assignments until after the legislature convenes Monday.

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