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Legislators revisit session highlights

COVINGTON - Two state legislators representing the local delegation talked about the highlights and lowlights of the 2009 General Assembly session during the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce's Post-Legislative Breakfast held Thursday morning at DeKalb Technical College.

State Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, and State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, covered the budget, transportation, property tax assessments and other hot topics taken up by the General Assembly during the session, which ended April 3.

The budget

Legislators managed to cut $3.3 billion from the 2009 budget and approved a balanced $18.6 million budget for 2010 without eliminating jobs, raising taxes or borrowing money.

"We did not raise taxes, and we are not going to raise taxes," Douglas said. "My personal philosophy is that you cannot tax yourself into prosperity."

A 10 percent funding cut was implemented for all departments, with the exception of education, which was cut about 3 percent.

Some stimulus money from the federal government was used to balance the budget and some was set aside for next year, Douglas said.

Holt said revenues are down significantly compared to last year. The state reported a 34.8 percent decline in revenues in February, a 14.8 percent decline in March and a 20.6 percent decline in April, he said.

"If we continue to see those kinds of numbers as we get into fiscal year 2010, the odds are we may get into a special session," he said.

If that happens, more furloughs or layoffs are possible.

One idea being floated is a mandatory furlough for school system employees of eight to 10 days per year, a move that would save an astounding $45 million per day, he said.

Douglas said a special session would cost $40,000 per day. With a minimum of five days to get legislation through both houses, taxpayers would be footing at least a $200,000 bill.

With the General Assembly set to reconvene in January, and a special session taking place in July or August at the earliest, Douglas said he's confident the state can make it through the remainder of the calendar year on the approved budget.

"My personal hope is that we do not go into special session. I don't think it would be a wise use of taxpayer dollars," he said.

Taxes

Legislators passed a bill placing a two-year cap on property tax assessments. The Association County Commissioners of Georgia opposed the measure due to the potential impact on local governments, but Holt said he heard from constituents who said they were tired of "back door" tax increases. The bill forces local governments to raise the millage rate to increase taxes, a process that requires public notification and hearings, he said.

"I don't have it in for local governments. A lot of people said we did, but it seemed to provide a level of public scrutiny that seemed appropriate," he said.

For 2010, the Legislature opted not to fund the homestead tax relief grant, which reduces property tax bills by an average of $200 to $300 per homeowner.

The grant was funded at $430 million for the current 2009 budget.

In other tax news, House Bill 261 provides a home purchase credit of 1.2 percent or $1,800, whichever is greater, on state income taxes. The credit is intended to boost the housing market.

Tax assessors are now also required to consider the value of foreclosed homes when making assessments.

The Jobs, Opportunity and Business Success Act designed to stimulate small businesses through tax incentives and credits passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Sonny Perdue due to the potential cost to the state.

The bill would have cut the capital gains tax in half and provided credits for businesses that hire people who have been drawing unemployment for at least four weeks.

Finally, following the revelation that three state senators and 20 representatives owe taxes, an ethics bill was passed allowing the revenue commissioner to publish the names of legislators who do not pay.

"It's a pretty simple philosophy that if you can't obey the law, you shouldn't write the law," Douglas said.

Transportation

Three Newton County road projects - Ga. Highway 142 north of Interstate 20, Ga. Highway 162, and the intersection of Salem and Spring roads - were included on the federal stimulus list, but were not on the first list of projects approved by the governor to receive funding, Douglas reported.

Salem Road and the Crowell Road/Ga. Highway 81 intersection did not make the master list because they were not "shovel ready," meaning the projects cannot begin immediately, he said.

Some projects that were approved for other parts of the state, included highway beautification projects, essentially involving planting of trees.

While such projects may be worthy, "they won't help with congestion," Douglas noted.

The House and Senate passed different versions of a referendum-based 1 percent sales tax for transportation funding.

The House supported a statewide 1 percent sales tax, while the Senate favored a local option program that would allow local governments to decide whether to implement a special purpose local option sales tax for transportation projects.

The two sides did not reach a compromise this session, but may take up the matter again next year, in which case a referendum would be held in November 2010, Douglas said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.