State lawmakers are heading back to the Capitol on Monday, gearing up for a stronger start to the 2011 legislative session.
Both chambers declared recess due to ongoing winter weather conditions after Gov. Nathan Deal's State of the State speech Jan. 12; they went into a joint session after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for annual budget hearings.
During the hearings, the state's various department and agency heads explained the specifics for the coming year as legislators dig into the details of the amended fiscal year 2011 budget and the full 2012 budget.
"The appropriations hearings were somewhat painful in that each department was coming in and saying how they lost resources and were trying to marshal the forces, consolidate operations and become increasingly efficient," Sen. Butch Miller said. "At some point, it gets beyond inefficiency and cutting through fat, and you get to the muscle and meat. Cuts are getting that drastic for everybody from A-Z."
Almost every department presented budgets with a tone of compromise and cooperation, Miller noted. Though he isn't a member of the appropriations committee, he attended to listen and learn more about the state's agencies and issues.
"The depth of knowledge and understanding that many of the commissioners and individuals exhibited was encouraging because it clearly shows they have their arms around the issues," he said. "Many had a thorough understanding of the department, and it was fascinating to hear the information."
Miller, who is attending his first legislative session, is ready to "hit the ground running" Monday.
"I'm absolutely enthralled by the legislative process and look forward to my committee meetings after the non-start due to weather," he said. "A number of issues will come up, but I'm most looking forward to taking a look at the statewide issues that will affect the economy."
This includes Miller's spots on the transportation, agriculture and consumer affairs committees.
"On a broader scale, what can we do as a state to encourage job growth and stabilize our economy in these areas?" he said. "As chair of the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee, I've already had a number of communities contact me about issues of interest to them, so we'll see activity there, too."
State budget hearings opened Tuesday with Deal and state economist Kenneth Heaghney giving predictions. Deal laid out more specifics from the budget plan he announced during his State of the State speech, which included cutting 14,000 vacant state positions.
During the address, Deal prioritized reservoirs, law enforcement and infrastructure but noted during the budget hearings the reality of cutting almost $2 billion from the state budget.
Lawmakers must also decide what cuts will mean for K-12 education and universities, especially after University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll Davis told legislators during his budget presentation that Georgia's college students should brace themselves for more tuition increases in the coming months.
"Now we've got to do what we've got to do," said Rep. Carl Rogers, who serves on the economic development subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. "Gov. Deal has given us direction, and the amended budget is usually not that hard. It is difficult making cuts, but that will come with the 2012 budget, which will take a good bit of time."
Rogers said he is also looking forward to getting into the committee process this week.
"We have to play catch up from the snowstorm like everybody else has," he said. "We're still in the forming stage with bills, and some that were pre-filed and dropped into the hopper have already been assigned to committees. We had a lot of pre-files, so I'm sure there are a lot of bills coming."
Legislators are also keeping their eyes on this sessions's hot topics - health care, immigration reform, the Savannah port and ethics.
"This week was still about letting members get their mind focused on the budget, so there were no big surprises," Rep. Doug Collins said Friday. "Now we're getting started on the normal session proceedings. Though we're seeing some pre-filed bills as we do every year, I think the bigger stuff is still being finalized, drafted and supported."
Collins is also stepping into his new role as one of Deal's floor leaders.
"The governor has laid out a good blueprint for the budget, but we're still having discussions on the big issues of the day, such as the HOPE Scholarship," he said.
"We're keeping a watch out, taking members' concerns and helping the transition of a new governor to get off to a good start. I think it's going well."