The Times interview
Over the next two days, The Times will discuss the 2012 General Assembly session with the state's top leaders: today, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle; and Saturday, House Speaker David Ralston.
Coming Sunday: Your Gold Dome Guide preview to the legislative session.
INTERVIEW VIDEO HOMEPAGE: Times reporters go one-on-one with Northeast Georgia's top newsmakers
Casey Cagle, Georgia's lieutenant governor and a Gainesville native, vowed to assert his role as leader of the state Senate in 2012 despite challenges to his duties in the chamber last year.
"I am the president and presiding officer of the Senate. We will continue to lead this body and do the best we can in making sure that the right outcomes for the citizens of Georgia occur," he said in an interview with The Times.
Days before the upcoming state legislative session begins, Cagle laid out the priorities to be set under his leadership in the Georgia Senate. One of the top priorities this year, he said, was the continued effort to create a better environment for businesses to start hiring.
Along with that he said the legislature would face another challenging year with balancing the state budget.
Cagle said he favors facing those challenges through more efficient government, rather than new taxes.
Cagle went into the 2011 legislative session with his wings somewhat clipped after Senate Republicans stripped Cagle of some of his Senate powers including the ability to appoint committee chairmen and the authority to assign legislation. Instead, that process has been divided among a committee of Senate leadership.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, told The Times the move was appropriate given the state constitution's language of separation of powers. Williams added there was no personal grudge at play against Cagle.
"The lieutenant governor has been a longtime friend of mine," Williams said. "We differ philosophically on the role of the lieutenant governor in the legislative chamber."
Some state leaders complained the change slowed passage of legislation in 2011.
"The experiment of last year failed," he said. "It's very difficult to lead a body by committee and I think that was demonstrated last year."
Williams disagrees, calling it a very successful session.
The process that went into place last year will remain the same.
Still, Cagle said he's confident he'll lead the Senate through a smoother session this year.
"Leadership comes in many different forms and you don't have to have rules in order to exert leadership," he said.
For his part, Williams said Cagle's input is welcome.
"We want his input. We're trying to be more inclusive this time," Williams said. "We hope he will reciprocate."
Becoming business-friendly and growing the job market
One point Williams and Cagle will agree on is jobs.
One of the leading goals this year, Cagle said, is making Georgia a more business-friendly state to grow jobs.
Cagle said the state can lure more jobs by keeping taxes low and removing "burdensome" regulations.
Cagle said there would be incentives coming forward that "would be strategic in nature" aimed at encouraging existing Georgia businesses to expand and drawing new businesses to the state.
One of the initiatives the state's Republican leaders are touting is removing the energy sales tax — a stance echoed by Gov. Nathan Deal and President Pro Tempore Williams.
Currently, Georgia businesses pay sales tax on their energy consumption, while surrounding states have removed the tax. Energy costs can be high, especially among manufacturers.
Pushing for a leaner, balanced, more efficient state budget
The lieutenant governor said the state government would also have to continue its push to make itself leaner and more efficient to balance the state budget.
Tax revenue is up, he said, but so are expenses thanks to increases in Medicaid, state health benefits and university costs.
"We are looking at almost a billion dollars that we're going to have to make some adjustments to," he said.
Cagle called some stirring for the return of the grocery sales tax to pay for income tax cuts a "non-starter."
"I don't want to raise taxes, I want to focus on driving more efficiencies in state government, cutting the budget and making the government more efficient and effective," he said.
Immigration reform likely to see no changes, despite backlash
Despite a contentious push last year to pass immigration reform and backlash from some business groups, Cagle said the legislature probably would not address the old bill with any changes this year.
On Tuesday, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black recommended Congress pass a new federal guest-worker program that would address concerns of Georgia farmers' concerns of their ability to recruit an adequate work force.
Cagle repeated those calls, and also backed the intentions of the 2011 legislation.
"I think what is important is that there's a recognition of the rule of law," he said. "There's a right way to come to the country and there is a wrong way."