By Gerhard Schneibel

gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Jan. 14 State of the State speech at the start of this year’s General Assembly session warned of a projected $2.2 billion budget deficit.

Now that the session is over, the necessary cuts have been made, and the budget is balanced. But several local lawmakers described the session as a disappointment and said they spent the session fighting fires instead of making progress.

Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs) said it was “very, very difficult” to make cuts, but “the bottom line is we were able to do that without raising taxes.”

No consensus was reached on a comprehensive transportation solution, nor was one reached on property tax reform. Both would require constitutional amendments, which would go before Georgia voters November 2010.

The bills still could make that ballot if they pass with two-thirds majorities during next year’s assembly session, and Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Dunwoody) said it’s not a bad thing to discuss them more before approving them.

“What’s wrong with a few more months’ debate to make sure we’re more accurate and concise in our planning?” she said. “There’s plenty more benefits in not passing things I think than scratching another notch off of a scorecard. Sometimes success in a legislative session can be defined as stopping bad legislation rather than passing more laws.”

Chambers said her “summer project” will be to figure out what happened to MARTA’s operating reserve, which was created in 2006 and should have “well over $140 million in it.”

“With MARTA claiming they need all this capital repair money in order to operate the system, I’m going to want to see where the money went,” she said.

Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) said the session was “disappointing as far as any real public policy initiatives coming forward.”

“The hardest thing about this session … was trying to find a way to slice budgets all over the place,” he said. “It’s not only the state cutting, but also all your local governments. We’re doing what we can to manage with the money that we have.”

One bill that did pass was a temporary moratorium on property assessment increases.

Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Buckhead) said that legislation “slams shut” local governments’ “back-door ability to raise additional revenue.”

“If the local governments need to raise additional revenue, they should do so through the front door by adjusting the millage rate,” he said. “That’s how local officials should raise taxes: by looking at their taxpayers in the eye and telling them why they need to do so. They shouldn’t be using artificial reassessments to raise additional revenue.”

Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) supports that change but is disappointed the broader constitutional amendment failed to pass.

“We did manage to pass a temporary moratorium on property assessment increases to give some stability,” he said. “Values are very much in flux, but local governments seem to want to increase assessments regardless of what the market is doing.”

Local government officials are afraid to “raise their hands in an open, local meeting and raise taxes through the millage rate,” Jacobs said. “They’d rather hide behind the nontransparent increases that come from property assessment hikes.”

Although no comprehensive transportation reform passed, the Georgia Transportation Board was “neutered,” and a new planning director position was created, Jacobs said.

“We have fundamentally remade how transportation projects will be planned and implemented,” he said. “GDOT’s mode of operation over the years has been to plan and plan and plan but never implement. … I believe we’re going to see transportation projects move forward more efficiently.”

Some legislators said at the beginning of the session they were worried about the long-term debt a planned $1.2 billion bond package would create. That bond package passed.

Jacobs said the bonds are “designed to stimulate the economy and get some projects done at a time when bonded indebtedness comes at a very low cost to the state government because interest rates are low.”

Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody) said the education system was spared cuts as drastic as those that affected other agencies. “We worked hard to hold education harmless, and education ended up with just a few percentage points cut, whereas there were other agencies that were cut 10, 15 or 18 percent.”

Sen. Horacena Tate (D-Atlanta) said she was concerned about a rush of bills that passed just before the session ended April 3 with little review or debate.

“They were just cranking them out, or trying to,” she said.