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Budget looms big over session

General Assembly starting Monday

POSTED: January 12, 2009 8:53 a.m.
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Rep. Al Williams

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The faltering economy’s effects on Georgia’s and expected cuts in state spending and benefits is the 500-pound gorilla sitting in area lawmakers’ front rooms. They do have other fears and priorities for the 2009 General Assembly, which starts Monday. Here’s how the sum up their plans and hopes:

Sen. Eric Johnson

Senator Eric Johnson has spent the last six months campaigning to be Georgia’s next lieutenant governor.
The former Senate president pro-tem said he has been traveling the state, speaking to residents.
“The economy is on top of everybody’s mind,” the Savannah native said.
Traffic, health care and education also continue to top the list of citizens’ concerns, according to Johnson.
“It is not really different from previous years, except for the economy.” he added. “It is obviously the one that worries the most people.”
Johnson said the state has been hit hard, but while people are feeling it on the coast, they have not been hit as hard as those in the Atlanta-metro area.
“We still have the military and incoming businesses supporting us,” he said.
For this year’s General Assembly, which begins Monday, Johnson said he and his constituents will be looking at the best ways to restore struggling parts of Georgia’s economy.
“We’re looking at re-writing BEST, an economic development legislation that gives tax breaks for new employees. We’re going to be looking at what can we do better to bring new jobs to Georgia. “
In some cases, Johnson said, old legislation will have to be renewed during the session.
“Bills die after two years, and this year we’re going to have to cut $2 billion from the budget and restart on the transportation bill, which was the biggest bill that died last session.”
Johnson said he also has plans to continue his focus on education reform and expanding parental choice.
On his legislative agenda for residents living in and surrounding Liberty County, Johnson said funding for road projects continues to top the list.
“The proposal that will probably move out of the Senate will be the T-SPLOST (transportation — special purpose local option sales tax) bill. That would be like the other SPLOST legislation where voters vote for optional sales tax to support local highway construction,” he said. 
In addition to his campaign efforts and his normal legislative duties, Johnson will also preside over the ethics committee this year. He said he will continue to work on government being as free from corruption as it can and will be watching to ensure that elections are fair.

Rep. Al Williams
State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, thinks budget cuts in the upcoming this legislative session will hurt Georgians, but he wants to make sure city and county governments aren’t crippled.
“But it’s on us,” Williams said of payroll cuts, reduction of services and hiring freezes. “It’s a national problem. We’re not as hurt as some states.”
Georgia’s $2 billion deficit can still trickle down to the average pocketbook.
“People who can least afford it are really going to be hit,” Williams said. “We can resign to that fact.”
But Williams predicts he will also be fighting some cuts, mentioning teacher raises and any new bills for school vouchers.
Regulating vouchers’ intended use can be difficult and Williams wants to see public education get the most out of its already stretched dollar.
“I support public education with public money,” Williams said. “Not private education with public money.”
Williams said he will support fellow Rep. Stephens’ bill to bump up cigarette sales tax, calling it an alternative to increased medical costs that the state may have to cover.
The Midway Democrat does believe the state needs to increase trauma medical care around the state, especially in areas where accidents can happen hours away from such care.
“We need to be able to pay for [trauma care] that gets people to the hospital and takes care of them especially during that golden hour,” he said.
Among his top pushes for Liberty County will be getting funds released for the Department of Family and Children Services building.
“I think one of the worst things about [budget cuts] is we’ve got county government now being hit because we’re not going to be able to come through with some promised tax revenue,” Williams said. “We’ve got to look at how not to hurt city and county government too badly with these cuts.”
Property tax will also be addressed.
“On one hand we want to certainly give relief to property tax holders, but on the other hand we want to make sure that we can pay for the services the citizens expect,” said Williams, who successfully sponsored the Kemp-Deloach-Williams Tax Relief Act passed in 2004.
And economic stimulus package proposed by President-elect Barack Obama is something to look forward to, according to Williams, and “make sure that we get our fair share.”
“I think we’re going to watch very closely the proposed tax cut for the middle class…see how it’s going to affect Georgians,” he said. “I think it puts to rest the nay-sayers who ran an entire campaign on the fact that the President was going to raise taxes.”

Sen. Tommie WIlliams
After five terms in the Georgia Senate, Tommie Williams, starts the impending session in a new position, president pro-tem. He said it’s going to a year full challenges.
“Our biggest difficulty will be balancing the budget,” Williams said. “We’re facing a $2 billion shortfall. It’s a very difficult and trying job.”
The Lyons Republican said although the senate’s looking to pinch pennies, he realizes families are forced to do the same. During the first week of the session he said lawmakers will try to pass a bill in the concerning surging property taxes.
“It will freeze the rate property taxes can go up,” Williams said. “We want to regulate it at 3 percent.”
Another area of interest for Williams is education. One of his priorities is to raise the pay for science and math teachers.
He said there’s a major shortage in science and math teachers because educator salaries can’t compete with jobs in those fields.
Also, Williams said he’s working with Sen. Eric Johnson to pass a bill allowing school vouchers, a topic which, he said, is controversial among educators.
“That will probably be a difficult bill to pass, but there are over 300 schools [in Georgia] that didn’t make AYP,” Williams said. “That’s unacceptable.”
On a personal note, Williams said enjoyed the holidays by spending time with his family, including his three children and wife. He is in good health and good spirit, and he said he’s looking forward to the challenge of being president pro-tem.
“It’ll be a challenge in a trying economic year, but we’re ready for the challenge.”
 

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