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More money in state budget, but legislators cautious
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Talk about health care, education, the economy and jobs filled an hourlong legislative breakfast Thursday, as well as a commitment by lawmakers not to dawdle when the 2014 General Assembly kicks off Jan. 14.

“We should go to work to work,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “I expect we will go to the Capitol with a very direct and deliberative approach.”

The legislators spoke before about 400 people at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs & Issues Breakfast at the Gainesville Civic Center, then followed with meetings with various government and school groups to hear their priorities.

All of it was intended to get a jump on the 2014 legislative session.

As in most years, the state’s budget was a hot topic, and the news there was encouraging — state revenues are climbing again after a long, painful economic downturn. But lawmakers remained cautious.

“We’re coming back into a time of prosperity,” said Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, whose district includes South Hall. “We’ve seen an increase in coffers pretty much every month this year, which is exciting. However, I think it’s critical that we stay in a mode of saving for the future generations.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Chestnut Mountain Republican, told the gathering, “With the additional revenue that we’re going to see this year, we need to make sure we restore those furlough days. 

“We need to make sure that kids are back in school for a full year and they have every opportunity imaginable available to them.”

Cagle added: “I believe education drives the economy, not the reverse.”

Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, whose district includes a small part of East Hall, said he also believes the state needs to restore education funding — but not necessarily toward teacher pay.

“I know teachers and state employees haven’t had a pay raise in several years, but there are some other issues with that,” he said. “If you look at education, specifically, funding pay raises puts additional responsibilities on the local school systems that already are stretched very thin.”

By restoring “austerity” cuts in general funding, “you give local systems the flexibility to spend that money where they need to spend it,” Wilkinson said.

One other key issue that legislators discussed was the prospect of eventually eliminating the state income tax.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, spoke about it in light of competing with surrounding states, such as Florida, Alabama and Tennessee.

“This is a no-brainer,” he said. “... But that is something that will have to be done over a period of time, since we depend on 44 percent of it for funding.”

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, also spoke on the potential impact of the federal Affordable Care Act on Georgia.

The controversial law, which takes effect Jan. 1, has had trouble launching because of technical glitches on the U.S. government’s website where citizens can buy health insurance.

Hawkins said South Carolina is considering a law that would pay fines for residents who don’t buy insurance.

“I would oppose something like that, because I don’t feel like your tax money should pay for someone who decides they do not want to pay for their insurance,” he said.

Transportation also might become an issue in the General Assembly.

Although a regional transportation sales tax was shot down by voters last year in much of the state, including Northeast Georgia, the Transportation Investment Act is in force in three regions that passed it. 

“We do need to look at, if we do (reconsider) a penny sales tax and bring it before the people, we’re not conditioning everyone just like a bunch of cattle,” said Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville. “What happens is we put a penny out there, and we never take it away.”

Dunahoo said he thinks government “can earn the trust back” of voters if it gives strict assurances about how the money would be spent.

Miller said transportation is key to economic development, noting Interstate 985 was a “big game-changer” for Hall County.

“Without I-985, Gainesville would look like Winder today,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve driven in and out of Winder — it’s difficult to get in, difficult to get out, and the economic base is not what we have in Hall County.

“We’ve got to have a plan that people can buy into and are willing to invest in.”