Leaders: More cuts on the way

COVINGTON -- The state budget crisis isn't likely to improve any time soon, according to legislators who attended the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce Pre-Legislative Breakfast at DeKalb Technical College on Tuesday morning.

State Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, and State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, were on hand to give their predictions for the upcoming legislative session, and both agreed the budget will dominate.

"It's going to be easy this legislative session. All we have to do is be able to say no to everybody and we'll be out of there in no time flat," Douglas joked.

Holt said the budget, which has already been trimmed by $4 billion, will likely have to be amended to account for lower-than-projected revenues.

Revenues have been in decline for two years running, he said, noting that projections dipped from $21.2 million in fiscal year 2009 to $18.6 billion under the current fiscal year 2010 budget. Fiscal year 2011 looks even more bleak, with revenues projected at about $17 billion or less.

That's approximately the same budget the state was operating on in 2005, and the population has increased by 1 million people since that time, Holt said.

The state's reserve fund has dwindled from $1.6 billion in 2008 to about $200 million today, he added. About two-thirds of that fund has been used to balance the budget due to shortfalls, while one-third has gone to midyear adjustments for education.

Even the most optimistic forecasters are predicting a continued decline in revenues for several more months before they flatten out. As a result, Holt said some programs may have to be eliminated altogether. Education, transportation and law enforcement will remain top priorities as far as funding, he said.

Holt is a proponent of zero-based budgeting, where department heads would be required to justify every expense versus coming in and presenting last year's budget and asking for increases.

Douglas added that if staffing cuts are needed, he would push for furloughs versus layoffs.

County Commissioner Mort Ewing encouraged legislators to rethink unfunded mandates. He said the state currently requires counties to provide 59 unfunded services and asked if that could be reduced.

Both Holt and Douglas agreed that they would be willing to look at that, while Holt said if the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and State Board of Education should lobby for that, there might be some empathetic ears at the Capitol.

Another hot topic this session will be water. With the clock ticking on the 2012 deadline for Georgia to get Congressional approval to continue withdrawing water from Lake Lanier for supply purposes, both Holt and Douglas said they will oppose inter-basin transfers.

"Newton County has been quite responsible in planning for the future regarding water. I have absolutely no use for the idea that somehow we should let other metro area counties say, 'Our need is greater, so we're going to come take your water.' The senator and I will fight that," Holt said.

Both Holt and Douglas referred to a recent article published in the Citizen that revealed that several state legislators in the Rockdale County delegation have accumulated hundreds of dollars in late fees from not filing campaign contribution reports on time, according to the State Ethics Commission. Both said those representatives need to be held accountable.

"We all know the rules when we get into this. Either play by the rules, or go somewhere else," Douglas said.