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Our Views: Lawmakers' No. 1 priority is jobs
Legislature's wish list begins and ends with putting Georgians back to work
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Legislators at the annual Eggs and Issues Breakfast last week made it clear they hope jobs are on the menu when lawmakers gather for next year's session of the state's General Assembly.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle offered some very pro-business remarks to the Gainesville-Hall County Chamber of Commerce audience, which were then echoed by other members of the county's legislative delegation.

And rightfully so.

Georgia, like every other state in the union, needs jobs in order to shore up a shaky state economy and to get thousands of individuals back on their feet financially.

While the state is beginning to see some slight hints of economic improvement - state tax collections for November were up 7 percent over the previous year - there is still a long way to go to reach a level of economic stability, and the high-rolling boom times of just a few years ago remain just a dim and distant memory.

Cagle spoke of the need to invest in Georgia's transportation infrastructure by supporting next year's regional sales tax, or T-SPLOST, vote. He also spoke of the importance of having sustainable water resources, a vital concern not only for business growth but also for existing and future residential development.

Not that long ago Georgia was on a growth and development binge that seemed to have no end in sight. But even years of economic prosperity weren't enough to shield us from the downturn that has plagued the rest of the country. In fact, Georgia has been hit worse that some areas, as evidenced by the large number of banks in the state that have been closed over the past two years.

We need jobs to rebuild a sound financial future, and Cagle promised that next year's legislative session will be focused on creating them. We hope he's right.

As is the norm for the annual pre-legislative breakfast, a number of local government entities and groups, as well as colleges and private entities, presented lawmakers with their "wish list" for the coming session. While the wants and needs of the many diverse groups varied widely, there were a few common threads running throughout.

Many, naturally, sought additional funds for any of a variety of urgent needs. The state budget has been extremely lean in recent years, and even the possibility that the purse strings might be loosened just a bit has some optimistic that funding cuts could be restored, or new money found for badly needed initiatives.

We fear the amount of money available still will fall far short of what is needed for many vital functions statewide, forcing lawmakers to again make agonizing budget decisions.

Amid the "wants" on the wish list are needs that cannot be set aside: schools, Medicaid health coverage and public safety. Only after those bottom-line must-haves of state government are funded can the legislature begin to pump money into new concerns.

Those key items, along with transportation and water, are vital to the state's economic future as well. Companies looking to expand and open new plants will select states that can meet their workers' needs, in health, education and infrastructure. A state with lousy roads and failing schools will continue to lose good jobs to those who address those issues effectively.

Another recurring theme among some of the priority lists was that legislators should give local governments the authority they need to handle local issues more efficiently on issues ranging from setting the dates for tax votes to changing rules for use of local option sales tax collections.

A number of the lists presented for consideration asked for tweaks or changes in state tax laws and tax exemptions. That serves as a reminder that Georgia's tax code remains a quilt of many pieces, some of which seemed to be changed and restitched haphazardly on a regular basis without truly comprehensive reform.

Looking over the priority lists presented to them, lawmakers also were reminded of how interwoven are the various entities over which they hold sway. The local hospital, for example, listed funding for transportation improvements as a priority, while Brenau University listed reduction of health care costs.

All told, Thursday's gathering and the lists produced for lawmakers serve as a reminder of the serious and challenging work facing the state's legislative body when it gathers for 40 days of much work lies before them starting in January. As has been the case the last three years, budget issues will dominate, funding will be tight, and the need from every corner will be demonstrable.

That said, if there is one magic formula to address it all, it can be found in the word promised by Cagle: jobs. Finding creative ways to rebuild the state economy for the future, getting Georgians off the unemployment rolls and on the payrolls, and enticing new companies to bring jobs to Georgia that have long-term sustainability will go a long way toward addressing many of the state's current woes.

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