Legislators give update on budget

COVINGTON -- State legislators reviewed the 2010 General Assembly session and gave a preview of next year, when the financial picture looks to be even more bleak, at the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce Newton AM breakfast Wednesday morning held at DeKalb Technical College.

Legislators passed a $17.9 billion balanced budget with significant cuts for fiscal year 2011. Education spending was slashed by about 6 percent, while public safety and courts were cut 3 to 4 percent. Other areas saw greater cuts.

"This year we made everyone fairly unhappy. We tried to find a level of unhappiness that was fair for everybody," said State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle.

Revenues overall were down by 8 percent and have been steadily declining month to month for two years. Next year, legislators will face a $1 billion to $2 billion revenue drop.

"It's going to take a while for the state to recover," Holt said, noting that next year there will be no stimulus funds to assist with the shortfall. The state's $1.5 billion emergency fund in place at the beginning of the recession is now depleted, he said.

State Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, said there's hope that revenues will hit a plateau rather than continue to decline in the near future, and that fiscal year 2012 will be the "bottom of the bell curve."

State Rep. Toney Collins, D-Conyers, said a tax increase may be necessary.

"Even though no one likes raising taxes, there's a time and a place for everything. To jump start things, we may have to do some type of tax raising," Collins said.

Legislators have passed numerous tax incentives for employers in hopes of stimulating job creation and bolstering the economy, he said.

To generate more revenue for transportation projects, lawmakers this session passed a bill dividing Georgia into 12 regions and allowing voters in each region to decide whether to increase sales taxes by 1 percent to pay for projects in their respective areas.

Two representatives from the counties within each region -- the county commission chair and a mayor, elected by other mayors within the county -- will choose which projects get funded.

Holt said the good news is that, within its region, "Newton will be a big fish in a small pond. Newton's vote is going to sway which way things are going."

However, if a majority of voters in other counties agree to raise the sales tax but Newton voters are opposed, it would still be in effect.

"There's no opt-out provision for counties to go it alone," Douglas said.

Collins said he's in favor of a state rail system to generate jobs and stimulate the economy.

In other news, legislators passed a bill aimed at positioning Georgia more favorably in the water wars with Alabama and Florida and to demonstrate the state is pursuing "a culture of conservation," Holt said.

The bill allows outdoor watering between the hours of 4 p.m. and 10 a.m. only and requires builders to use more efficient plumbing, among other things. It would go into effect in July 2012, right around the deadline given by a U.S. district judge for the states to resolve the water war or else Georgia would face restricted access to Lake Lanier.

Holt said the bill will bolster the state's chances as it challenges that ruling in court.

Legislators also passed an ethics bill that "has teeth in it," Douglas said, in response to a scandal that ended the political career of former House Speaker Glenn Richardson, who was accused by his ex-wife of having an affair with a lobbyist pushing a $300 million pipeline bill that Richardson was co-sponsoring.

The new ethics bill contains more stringent reporting requirements for officials and lobbyists; broadens the authority of the state Ethics Commission; requires many local officials to file campaign finance disclosures with the state for the first time; and boosts fines for lobbyists and officials who are late filing their required disclosure reports.

Though it's a improvement, Douglas noted that, "There's no bill or law we could pass to make somebody behave themselves."

Finally, Douglas said Gov. Sonny Perdue has yet to decide whether to sign a bill banning texting while driving. The governor is questioning how a police officer could tell the difference between dialing a phone number and texting, he said.