District 1 State Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, told the Hinesville Rotary Club on Tuesday that the Georgia Legislature is required by the state constitution to pass a balanced budget during its regular 40-day session. Carter spoke about taxes, a new immigration bill and the HOPE scholarship during the hour-long Rotary club meeting at Western Sizzlin’ Steak House.
Carter said state lawmakers will finish the current fiscal year’s $18.3 billion budget on June 30 and will begin the 2012 fiscal year on July 1 with an $18.9 billion budget.
Carter said balancing the budget in years past was made easier when the state had reserves and stimulus money to spend. This year the state has had to tighten its belt and lawmakers have had to make cuts, he said.
“We did this without any tax increases,” Carter said.
The senator said legislators decided to focus on the needs of K-12 and therefore made cuts that only would impact higher education. This year, state lawmakers made changes to the widely popular HOPE scholarship.
“Lottery revenues have been stable,” Carter said. “However, tuition costs have been increasing.”
Carter said to save the program, the legislature decided to decouple the HOPE scholarship from tuition and base the scholarship amount annually on lottery revenues. Beginning this 2011-12 school year, students with a 3.0-3.6 grade point average will have 90 percent of their tuition covered, he said. Zell Miller scholars, those students who earned a 3.7 GPA or higher and have scored at least a 1200 on the SAT, or were their high school’s valedictorian or salutatorian, will receive 100 percent of the HOPE, Carter said.
Carter said legislators will review lottery revenues each year.
The District 1 state senator told Rotarians he voted for HB 87, a bill crafted after the controversial Arizona immigration law.
“Illegal immigration in Georgia was costing the state between $2.4-2.6 billion a year,” he said. Carter said legal immigration is encouraged, commenting most Americans were immigrants at one time or another.
“We don’t want you here illegally,” he said.
Carter explained employers with 10 employees or more will be required to use the state’s E-verify program to ensure they are hiring legal aliens.
He also touched on a tax reform bill, which did not pass. Carter spoke about implementing tax reform in stages, such as decreasing the income tax rate from 6 percent to 4 percent and establishing a casual sales tax on automobiles. He said this initiative could come up again in August or next year.
Carter informed Rotary club members a special legislative session may be called in mid-August to deal with redistricting. Redistricting generally follows census years, he said.
The South Georgia senator said this region could lose two Senate seats and six to eight seats in the House. But because North Georgia’s population — in or north of metro Atlanta — has increased, it could gain seats.
“We need to make sure South Georgia is represented and our voice is heard down here,” he said. Carter said Chatham County could lose a congressional seat and added southwest Georgia in particular “is going to take a beating” because its population decreased in the past decade.
Carter also lauded Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for supporting the Savannah port deepening project, which is important to both the region and the state’s economic development, he said.
Carter said $32 million in bonds already has been dedicated to the project.