Rome News-Tribune — Challenges await state officials

by Walter C. Jones, Morris News Service

ATLANTA — Cutting more than one-tenth of the already stretched budget and grappling with a shortage of HOPE and Pre-K funds, various immigration restrictions and the need to find more water for metro Atlanta rank among the top the issues facing the new government that takes office Monday.

Other topics will also come up among the roughly 3,000 pieces of legislation to be introduced by those taking the oath of office. An increasingly conservative, Republican majority means matters such as abortion, the Sunday sales of alcohol and expansion of gambling are likely to generate sparks even if they don’t pass.

Gov.-elect Nathan Deal heads the list of officeholders coming to power, and there’s no shortage of advice for him on what his priorities should be.

Last week, retiring Gov. Sonny Perdue suggested Deal keep his eye on employment.

“Creating jobs for Georgians, as everyone knows, I think would be very, very important,” Perdue said.

Indeed, voters told pollsters hiring was the No. 1 issue in the fall elections.

Georgia Chamber of Commerce President Chris Clark praised Deal for retaining that focus since the campaign.

“Governor Deal is already doing exactly what he should be doing — focusing on improving the state’s economy and looking for ways to create new jobs,” he said. “There is nothing more important that we can do right now.”

Republican political consultant Mark Rountree of Landmark Communication has strategic advice.

“Keep your governing coalition of conservative Georgians unified by opposing tax increases while privatizing government services and creating public-private partnerships to water and transportation,” he said. “Sound doctrine is sound politics.”

Others say too much has already been cut from vital government services.

“However, a realistic assessment of our present situation indicates that it is no longer possible to address our fiscal condition by only focusing on the spending side of the budget; more balanced and nuanced solutions are required,” said Thomas Lauth, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and a professor of government finance.

Additional pieces of advice range from announcing budget vetoes sooner so state agencies aren’t left wondering what they’ll have to spend, to creating a task force on new ideas.

And finally, there’s the advice that Deal not forget to savor where you are, advises Bert Brantley, outgoing communications director to Perdue.

“You end up working so hard and so fast that the days, weeks and years can go by in a flash if you don’t stop and appreciate it,” Brantley said.

Major issues before the General Assembly

Budget The state’s spending is projected to be as much as $2 billion — or more than 10 percent — over next year’s expected tax collections. Previous sessions would have already had to cut this much from the budget if federal stimulus money weren’t filling the hole, but that money expires in July.

HOPE/Pre-K Despite annual record growth in sales, the Georgia Lottery Corporation no longer generates enough money to fully fund the scholarship and prekindergarten programs without using reserves. Deal has said he favors toughening the qualifications for HOPE to reduce the outflow of funds, but many groups are opposed.

Immigration Lawmakers have worked since the last legislative session on new restrictions to people living in the state without proof of citizenship or a visa. Their proposals have already sparked protests leading to arrests, and demonstrators promised to be more visible during the session.

Reservoirs Deal has said he will recommend the state issue bonds to pay for the construction of a network of reservoirs as well as authorizing some ways that private companies can make enough profit to encourage them to invest in reservoir construction.

Interbasin transfers Downstream communities and environmentalists say they’ll push to impose strict regulations on the transfer of water from one river basin to another. Their goal is to stop metro Atlanta from monopolizing natural resources or harming aquatic wildlife.

Tax reform A task force has recommended taxing groceries, lowering income taxes, raising the tax on cigarettes and other changes to the tax code. While lawmakers must vote on the whole package of changes without amending it, the debate is still expected to be long and contentious.

Medical-malpractice caps Business and medical groups want the legislature to make another attempt at capping how much juries can award in cases of medical malpractice. The Georgia Supreme Court found the original law imposing a cap to be unconstitutional.

Hospital bed tax Hospital advocates are expected to lobby to remove the 1.5 percent tax on their revenues levied last year to fund a boost in Medicaid payout to doctors.

Payday lending Companies that want to make small, high-fee loans “until the next payday” are looking for allies in their effort to repeal restrictions essentially outlawing their practices.

Juvenile-law update A sweeping update to the laws governing juveniles is a holdover from the two previous sessions. While many of the controversial proposals have been removed, children’s advocates still argue it’s needed.

Zero-based budgeting Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed legislation to subject every penny of state spending to legislative review each year because he said it would be too cumbersome. Legislative leaders have considered overriding the veto or passing the bills yet again for Deal to sign.

Health-insurance exchanges One of the provisions of federal health reform requires states to establish ways for people to easily shop for insurance and find bargains. There are different ways these exchanges can be set up.

Redistricting While most observers expect redistricting to wait until a special session around August, many ambitious legislators will be trading votes during the regular session in hopes of winning enough support to draw a district they can win higher office in. Others will predict that they’ll be left with unwinnable seats and will rush to complete their personal legislative agendas before their final terms in office end next year.

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