COVINGTON - Newton County's state legislative delegation predicts this year's legislative session will be one of the most stressful they've endured, with transportation and water issues at the top of the hot topics list.
The delegation, which includes State Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, and State Reps. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle; John Lunsford, R-McDonough; and Robert Mumford, R-Conyers, gave an overview of their expectations for this session, which begins Jan. 14, at the Newton AM breakfast hosted by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce at DeKalb Technical College on Wednesday morning.
Last year's session was tense, with some legislators resorting to name-calling and shouting over the most contentious issues, and this one will be no better, with two emotional issues like the transportation funding shortfall and the water shortage likely on the agenda, they said.
"Last year's session was one of the worst, but this new one will be worse than that one," Lunsford said.
As automakers respond to rising crude oil prices by manufacturing more fuel-efficient vehicles, the motor fuel tax is no longer providing sufficient funding to the Georgia Department of Transportation, Holt said.
An alternative funding source must be found, and there are several options on the table, he said.
The first is a flat 1 percent sales tax, which would raise the state's maximum sales tax rate from 7 cents to 8 cents per dollar, and would require a referendum in November, he said.
Another option, which would also require a referendum, would allow counties and cities to group together and pass a regional special purpose local option sales tax to fund transportation projects.
The third option would be public/private partnerships in which public projects would be bid to private contractors who would fund road projects and be reimbursed through toll roads.
"I think it's going to be a mixture of things we'll have to do to try to solve our transportation difficulties," Holt said.
Lunsford said a regional SPLOST is more logical than a statewide tax increase, which he said would hurt automobile dealers at state lines. States like South Carolina have a sales tax cap and customers would cross the line to pay less tax, he said.
Douglas said the tax increase would be the largest in state history, adding he would not support the increase itself but would support a referendum to allow voters to make the decision.
The state has a $1.6 billion surplus, and both Douglas and Mumford said they would support transferring at least a
portion of the surplus funds to the Department of Transportation.
The officials said they don't know what the state's revised water conservation plan will entail.
One option is planning for reservoirs throughout the state, but that would be a huge expense for land acquisition, Douglas said.
With their foresight in planning and building reservoirs years ago, Mumford said leaders in Newton and Rockdale counties are "suddenly beginning to look like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt."
The two disagreed on the importance of releasing enough flow down the Chattahoochee River, the subject of ongoing water wars between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
"I'm a Georgia-first guy," Douglas said, adding he had "no sympathy" for Florida and Alabama.
As for Florida officials' claims that a reduced flow could threaten endangered mussels and sturgeons, "I think mussels and sturgeons in Florida are great when times are good, but when times are not good, animals have to take a back seat to people," Douglas said.
Mumford disagreed, saying protection of endangered species is important. It's also important to release adequate flow down the Chattahoochee, he said, adding that Lake Lanier is only one of about 12 dams along the river.
Officials said even they aren't sure what's new in House Speaker Glenn Richardson's GREAT Plan, which has undergone several revisions.
The plan initially was to eliminate all property tax in favor of sales tax, but now the proposal is to only eliminate school taxes, Mumford said.
"Nobody really knows what the speaker's plan is," he added.
Douglas said the plan would face a "significant challenge" in the Senate, and he would not be in favor of stripping authority from local school boards.
In other news, Douglas said the delegation is requesting a line item in next year's budget for $2 million to replace the Porterdale Gymnasium.
The gym was destroyed in an intentionally set fire in October 2005. The culprits have never been identified.
Also, Mumford said he will propose the split of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit this session. The circuit includes Newton and Walton counties. If the split is not approved the circuit will get a fifth judge, he said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.