Georgia House Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, spoke to members of the Hinesville Rotary Club on Tuesday during the group’s regular weekly meeting. The lawmaker described the 2010 legislative session, which ended April 29, as one of the toughest in recent memory because of the state’s budget woes.
Three years ago, Williams said, the budget was $21.9 billion. This year, the assembly had about $17.9 billion to work with.
Many Georgia residents opposed tax increases, according to the representative, and because it’s an election year several legislators agreed not to raise the taxes.
“But we raised hospital fee taxes by $275 million. We just didn’t call it a tax,” Williams said.
The assembly also had to cut some funds to public schools, the Georgia Council of the Arts and the University System of Georgia, he said. “We reached a position where we have to decide if we’ll be able to recover after this. We are about to cost us, at university level, a position that has taken so long to take to get to. You can’t give up that much money and continue to offer a top flight education to students,” Williams said.
The lawmaker spoke of several solutions he thinks would offset the major cuts Georgia is facing, such as cutting the pay of top university professors and allowing counties to collect tax revenue. Williams said these actions may have prevented the assembly’s hospital, fee increase.
During the legislative session, Williams supported a bill that would add an extra $1 to the price of cigarettes, which he said would have created an extra $475 million to offset cuts. However, the bill didn’t go far.
The representative also said adding casinos throughout the state would make a big difference in the budget. Adding one at Jekyll Island and one in Underground Atlanta would bring in about $2 billion to $3 billion a year in revenue, according to Williams.
“Casino gambling is something whose time has come,” he said. “My suggestion on casinos is that it be dedicated primarily to transportation.”
Williams suggested using revenue from casinos to improve the state transportation system.
Some members of the assembly tried for a few years to get a transportation bill passed, but because of what the lawmaker called foolishness and political fodder, it never came to fruition.
During the 2010 session, a transportation bill that authorizes a one percent sales tax to be used for transportation was passed; however, elected officials will decide whether to accept the referendum. They will vote in 2012.
The assembly also approved extra funding for trauma care provided by a $10 fee on all license plates.
Williams said lawmakers overhauled property-tax legislation. Every property owner will now receive an annual assessment that includes all estimated taxes. The appeal process was expanded to 45 days. When determining fair market value, all other sales, including distress sales, must be included.
The assembly added a seatbelt law for pickup drivers and a law prohibiting the use of cell phones by teenagers while driving. And, according to Williams, texting while behind the wheel is completely banned for motorists of all ages.
Williams wrapped up his speech by reminding Rotary Club members that even though he only has $7,000 in operating expenses for the year, he will do anything he can to help.