Following in the wake of their national counterparts in Washington, D.C., Georgia state legislators head back to the grindstone Monday. As Congress readies to tackle an enormous deficit, Georgia’s elected officials must also deal with a state budget deficit between $1.5 and $2 billion, according to www.georgiawatch.com.
U.S. Congressman Jack Kingston, R-GA, who was sworn in Thursday, said cutting the federal budget was a top priority.
“We’re off to a good start,” Kingston said in a news release. “We’ve cut our own budget and reformed the way the House works. Now for the real task at hand: getting our country’s fiscal house in order. I look forward to the challenge.”
The Appropriations Committee, of which Kingston is a senior member, promised to reduce its own budget by 9 percent, according to the release.
Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, recently told the Courier he is eager to grapple with Georgia’s budget deficit and other challenges.
Carter, who represents District 159, and Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, attended a reception last Wednesday at Bryant Commons in Hinesville where they spoke with supporters about issues facing the state.
Carter listed a number of his goals, including addressing Georgia’s trauma care needs, finding alternate funding sources for the HOPE scholarship and improving transportation.
The senator expressed his disappointment over the trauma-care bill’s failure to pass, but said he is determined to pursue providing more trauma care centers across the state.
Williams told supporters he wants to find ways to create revenue, in addition to making budget cuts. He supports implementing a tax on food and eliminating the state income tax. Williams added the General Assembly may also consider raising the tax on cigarettes.
Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, who represents District 164, said a number of “hot button” issues will be addressed the first day the General Assembly meets.
“The biggest issue I’ve got coming back is the port,” Stephens said in a phone interview Thursday. He said he will work to ensure state funding is allocated for the Savannah port deepening project.
“Illegal immigration will probably be upfront in the legislative session,”
Stephens said. “The pieces of the Arizona bill are things we’re all going to try to get passed, on the
Republican side any-
“We’ve got over a half million illegal immigrants in Georgia, which is more than Arizona,” he continued. “It’s a matter of security, truly. I know if I go to other countries, I’m asked for my passport.”
Stephens commented, in reference to a report due out on overhauling the state’s tax system, he would like to consolidate some tax exemptions and eliminate those that are antiquated.
“We want to spread the tax base to more Georgians,” he said.
Stephens added he supports an increase on the cigarette tax.
He also would like to see “specific targeted tax cuts for certain industries” to help spur job growth.
In addition, he’d like to see more lottery revenue go toward the HOPE scholarship, and base eligibility for the pre-K program on financial need.
Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, who represents District 165 cited his top three issues: education, transportation and illegal immigration in a telephone interview Thursday.
“I’m very worried about the continuing cuts to education,” Williams said. “The burden can’t be shifted any more on local taxpayers.”
Like Carter, Williams wants to find ways of funding the HOPE scholarship before making cuts.
“HOPE originally had an income ceiling,” he said. “Before we cut, we need to look at reinstating an income ceiling. It doesn’t need to be permanent. We could maybe reinstate an income ceiling for a minimum of four years to give it a chance to regain some of its health.”
Williams also doesn’t want to overload Georgia’s teachers, many of whom have been hit with furloughs, increased class sizes and rising health insurance costs, he said.
“It’s unsustainable,” Williams said. “We cut $3 billion dollars in the last eight years. That’s got to stop or we’ll pay for it (in future years).”
Williams said he supports House Bill 277, which he said will place (an additional one percent special sales and use) tax on transportation. Twenty-five percent of this tax’s revenue would go to the state and the remainder would go toward local prioritized projects across the state, he said.
“I want to see us do whatever we can to see the harbor is deepened in Savannah,” Williams continued. “That port has a profound effect on this (coastal) area of Georgia and the state as a whole.”
As for illegal immigration, Williams said “reasonable voices have to prevail so that we can deal with the issue on illegal immigration while not cutting our economic head off.”
Williams said many Georgia farmers rely heavily on migrant labor.
“I don’t want to see agriculture completely (in disarray),” he said. “It would be an awful smell all the way to Liberty County with all those onions rotting in Tattnall County.”
Williams inferred overhauling the immigration system in the U.S. is the federal government’s responsibility.
“I don’t want us to adopt an Arizona plan. We don’t border Mexico. We have to deal with where we are in Georgia,” he said, adding, “Cruel things were said about the Irish, the Italians, the Polish and certainly the African Americans. Everybody, except the African Americans, came here under their own volition for a better life.” He said Georgians should examine immigration in a historical context, before dishing out “punitive actions.”
Finally, the state representative said he is eagerly waiting to see a special tax panel’s final report on tax reform in Georgia.
A.D. Frazier, who heads up the panel, told the Associated Press the report will be presented to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston on Monday.
Governor-elect Nathan Deal had pledged to reduce the corporate income tax during his campaign, the AP reported.
Williams said Georgia does not have a “prohibitive corporate tax rate.”
“There’s room for reasonable tax reform in Georgia,” he said. “I’m going to look at everything. I’m looking forward to the final report.”