Sunday, January 11, 2009

Economy, budget to dominate 09 legislative session

ALL of the information below is taken directly from The Ashe Advocate, a newletter prepared by State Representative Kathy Ashe.

Economy, budget to dominate 2009 legislative session

After six straight years of massive spending increases that have resulted in a 46.2 percent expansion of government since 2002, the state of Georgia is facing some harsh economic realities as the General Assembly gets ready to convene on Jan. 12.

The current recession has hit our state hard, with unemployment numbers reaching a 25-year high. Tax revenues are down, leaving a budget deficit of up to $2 billion. State agencies have already been ordered to reduce their budgets for the remainder of the current fiscal year by 6 percent. Legislators are preparing for cuts of up to 10 percent in the new budget.

But at the same time budget writers are working to make ends meet, the governor has proposed an aggressive stimulus package leveraged on heavy borrowing and spending to build roads, schools, libraries and other facilities. Legislators have yet to be told what specific projects are proposed or how much the package will cost taxpayers.

How the state handles its budget priorities in the current economic environment will be the overriding issue of the 2009 legislative session. Other pressing matters we will be dealing with beginning Monday include the following:

Property taxes. A proposed constitutional amendment would cap increases in residential property tax assessments at 3 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Lawmakers will also have to decide on whether to go along with the governor's proposal to eliminate the $430 million property tax relief grants that save homeowners about $200 to $300 per year.

Transportation funding. Last year, legislation proposing a regional, local option sales tax for transportation improvements passed the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate. That plan will likely be reconsidered this year to address a need for $100 billion or more in coming years to build the roads and transit facilities that can effectively serve the state's growing population.

Education funding. Over the past six years, the state has shifted more than $1.6 billion of school funding responsibilities to the local property taxpayers. Lawmakers made a $50 million dent in restoring those funds last year, but we need to do more. Even in tight budget times, spending tax dollars on private school vouchers will likely be proposed again.

Trauma care funding. In 2008, the legislature passed a one-time $58 million appropriation to expand and sustain Georgia's limited trauma care network, but a proposal to raise fees on car tags in order to provide a permanent funding mechanism failed. A new plan is expected to be considered in the new session.

Health insurance. Rising unemployment has caused the number of Georgians without health care coverage to surpass 1.6 million, according to a recent report. Expanding access to affordable health care is another side of the economic crisis the legislature must deal with in 2009.

Sunday sales. After previous failed attempts, the issue of allowing cities and counties to authorize the packaged sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday will be discussed again.

Death penalty. The failure of a jury to reach a unanimous death penalty verdict in the case of Brian Nichols, who murdered four people in a shooting rampage that began at the Fulton County Courthouse in 2005, has renewed a proposal to allow the death sentence to be imposed on a vote by 10 out of 12 jurors, instead of the currently mandated unanimous decision. Similar legislation passed the House but lost in the Senate in 2008.

Gun laws. Legislation has been pre-filed that would eliminate the provision in Georgia law that currently requires a person with a handgun to keep the weapon in a holster when carrying it in public.

Seat belts. Lawmakers will again debate whether to end the exemption in Georgia's seat belt law for drivers and passengers in pickup trucks. Proponents of the legislation say closing the loophole will save lives and make Georgia eligible for $20 million a year in federal highway funding.

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