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Legislators talk HOPE, economic development on 1st day
Session starts with discussion of gambling laws and school hiring
Sen. Butch Miller, left, talks with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle on Monday inside the Senate chamber during the first day of the legislative session at the State Capitol. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

1st day overview

Members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate settled in their chairs at the Gold Dome shortly after 10 a.m. Monday for the start of the legislative session.

They're readying themselves for the next 40 working days in which they say they have all eyes on passing a state spending plan and bolstering Georgia's shaky economy.

"I can sense that this House is ready to go to work," Speaker David Ralston said as he called his chamber to order.

Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to roll out a plan for tax reform at this morning's Eggs and Issues breakfast. At tonight's state of the state address, Deal also has plans to make announcements on education, transportation, health care, criminal justice and government efficiency.

Both announcements are centered on moving Georgia toward economic prosperity.

Already Monday, there was talk of more cuts to state spending. At the same time, legislators say they are considering lowering income taxes and completely eliminating a sales tax charged to manufacturers on their energy use.

"This state that we love faces big challenges, but I am excited about the future," Ralston said.

Ashley Fielding

Education issues are already setting the tone in a day-old session for Georgia's General Assembly.

Already, lawmakers are hearing projections that lottery revenues will support smaller and smaller scholarships for Georgia college students in the coming years.

Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers HOPE, told lawmakers Monday that by 2016 Georgia's college students will pay more out-of-pocket than they will receive in HOPE benefits.

Gov. Nathan Deal overhauled the scholarship last year, reducing its coverage of college expenses. The fix plugged the hole between declining lottery revenues and increasing costs for now, Connell said, but as the number of college students and tuition rates in Georgia climb, the scholarship won't go as far.

Connell testified Monday before a committee of state representatives and senators focused on economic development and tourism in Georgia.

His presentation to lawmakers followed a report from Georgia Lottery Corp. CEO Margaret DeFrancisco, who told the committee that lottery revenues in Georgia continue to suffer despite a "small uptick" in revenues over last year.

She and Jimmy Braswell, chairman of the state lottery board, broached the taboo subject of expanding gambling in the state to raise lottery revenues but were careful with their words.

With them at Monday's hearing were officials from Spectrum Gaming, which only months ago compiled a report for the Georgia Lottery stating that casino gambling, if placed in the right locations, could produce another $1 billion in revenue for the lottery.

Casino gambling is currently banned by state law. Georgia law does allow for video lottery terminals, though, as Braswell noted, their addition "is a very controversial topic."

The state's lottery board has the power to add those to the list of state lottery options, but Braswell told legislators Monday that he's not willing to go there, and neither is any member of the state lottery board.

He said the board is seeking "a way to engage the next generation of lottery players," but that it considers any expansion of gambling a "public policy issue" on which legislators must take the lead.

Gov. Nathan Deal has been adamant that he's against an expansion of gambling, but lawmakers danced around the subject for more than an hour in Monday's hearing.

At one point, one former Delaware lawmaker and the mayor of Dover, Del., were called to testify on how the inclusion of video lottery terminals had boosted that state's lottery revenues and bailed out its ailing horse racing industry.

The men emphasized the need for state control of video lottery terminals and suggested that Georgia policymakers looking to include video lottery in the list of gambling options make the terminals part of "destination" sites where people come to gamble, rather than scattering them about convenience stores across the state.

In Dover, the mayor called one such site "nothing but a success."

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, noted the number of jobs such a destination gambling site could bring to Georgia, where unemployment levels range above national averages.

"There's a lot of jobs there, people," Balfour said. "It's an increase in funding (for the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship), but it's also — at 9 percent unemployment — it's a lot of jobs."

Braswell told committee members that, if lawmakers decided to expand the state's gambling to include video lottery terminals, such a site could be up and running within three years of the OK.

Monday's hearing was mainly informational, and it remains unclear whether lawmakers will venture too far into the controversial subject this year, which serves as an election year for all of them.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said he doubts lawmakers will face any pressure this year to shore up lottery funds.

Rogers, the new chairman of the higher education committee, said he'd rather not work on a plan that the governor would veto. Any new lottery options might have to come at the governor's direction, he said.

"Economic development is key, and we need to look at any and all options that he could be in agreement with," Rogers said. "I don't want to spend my time ... when you know it's going to be vetoed after you spend months working on (the changes) ... then it's vetoed. I think it's going to have to be something that the executive and the legislative branches are in agreement on."

But Monday's events did set a tone for the coming weeks, in which Georgia lawmakers have a number of decisions to make about the state's education system.


Senate tackles schools' hiring

Aside from the hearing on lottery revenues, Georgia senators sent two bills to the governor regarding hiring practices in the state's k-12 education system.

While some senators said the first day of the legislative session was inappropriate timing for a vote on Senate Bill 184, the bill passed the chamber with a 38-15 vote.

The bill, passed by the House last year, bans local school districts from implementing a "last in, first out" policy for local school districts facing budget restraints.

While some senators voted to table the vote Monday, Flowery Branch Republican Butch Miller moved to keep the discussion going and voted in favor of the bill.

He said the bill kept bad policies out of local school districts while keeping local authority intact.

While the bill does not mandate other hiring or firing procedures, it does set a standard for what the procedure should not be, Miller said.

Senators also passed a bill out of the chamber that gives the state's school superintendent the same authority as other department heads in the state, granting the power to hire and fire among departments.

"It's good business," said Miller.


Regents to vote on college mergers

Today, the Board of Regents, overseer of the state's colleges, will vote on a plan to merge a number of state colleges to save money. Two colleges included in the proposed merger are Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University.

For now, however, Rogers said he's focused on the immediate fire, which includes current recommendations to consolidate Georgia's colleges.

Two representatives from Southeast Georgia took the opportunity of a new session to rail against the plan.

Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, urged the Board of Regents to take more time to study the plan, which was made public last week.

It would impact a college in Hatfield's hometown. Hatfield, who was joined at the well Monday by Rep. Jason Spencer, said state university officials have not had enough time to study the impacts of the merger plan on enrollment numbers.

Regents are expected to vote on the plan at a meeting at 1 p.m. today; Hatfield has asked that they postpone that vote.


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