By Maggie Lee & Joe Earle
As state legislators prepare to head to Atlanta for the annual law-making session, both Republican and Democrat lawmakers from north DeKalb use nearly the same phrase to name the biggest issue they’ll tackle this winter: money.
“Everything’s going to revolve around the budget,” said state Sen.-elect Fran Millar of Dunwoody.
His House colleague, newly elected District 79 Rep. Tom Taylor of Dunwoody, agreed: “The biggest issue is the budget.”
“I think everyone’s focus is going to be on the budget,” agreed District 81 Rep. Elena Parent, the House freshman and sole Democrat in northernmost DeKalb.
Other subjects likely to grab attention once the legislative session starts Jan. 10 include HOPE scholarships and redistricting, the lawmakers said. It’s a Census result year, so the Legislature will begin the long fight over drawing new districts for elected officials. The Legislature draws and approves the maps, but they must be vetted by the Federal Department of Justice for fairness to minority communities.
Preliminary census data suggests north Georgia will get an additional Congressional seat, but there’s no data yet to indicate which areas might pick up state legislative seats.
District 80 Rep. Mike Jacobs said the Legislature probably won’t seriously address redistricting until later in the year, when more Census figures become available. “We won’t really address [it] in earnest until a special session in the summer or fall,” he said. “But there will be some, at least, unofficial discussion about redistricting.”
As lawmakers await the Census numbers, the top topic of conversation has been potential budget cuts. The state must balance its budget each year. Though deficit estimates fluctuate based in part on sales tax receipts, legislators mentioned figures between $1.5 billion and $2 billion that must be trimmed to balance the budget.
That’s about 10 percent of all Georgia’s expenditures last year.
Jacobs said lawmakers already have cut the state budget from $20 billion to $17 billion over the past several sessions. Cutting $2 billion more means looking toward a budget of $15 billion. “When you’re dealing with billions of dollars, those are serious cuts,” he said.
The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget has already instructed state departments to draw up reduction plans showing cuts of 6, 8 and 10 percent. The Department of Education, however, has been instructed to write scenarios involving cuts of 2 and 4 percent from its budget.
When the state slashes education funding to counties, then each county must decide how to swallow the cut or raise more revenue.
As for the education cutting, “I personally don’t support that, but I think that’s going to happen,” Parent said.
But Millar thinks there may be room for some school budget trims. “I don’t believe that all of our school systems are good stewards,” he said.
Taylor agrees, although he says not all school systems overspend. Still he called DeKalb’s schools, for instance, “incredibly top heavy, incredibly bloated.”
The Legislature may weigh letting schools use special options local sales taxes meant to be marked for transportation. Bad idea, says Millar. That money is supposed to go for long-lived infrastructure, not personnel, who have a shorter useful life to the county.
Jacobs said he and Taylor planned to introduce legislation to trim the size of the DeKalb County school board to seven members from its present nine members. “We’ve got to do it,” he said. “All of the research and the experts from SACS [the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools] and the business community, everybody agrees that smaller school boards are less inclined to politics.”
On the revenue side, a sales tax on groceries will be discussed, lawmakers said. It could net the state about $600 million, Millar says. He suggests the Legislature also needs to take better control over University System of Georgia spending.
At public universities, the HOPE grant for in-state college tuition will come under review this year too, the legislators agreed. “Revenue and expenditure on HOPE are going opposite directions,” Taylor said.
“We have to shore [HOPE} up,” Jacobs said. “We don’t have a choice. We have to shore it up or else it won’t be around for the long term.”
HOPE scholarships now are awarded to in-state college students based on grade point average. Taylor and Millar will push for adding an SAT or ACT hurdle because schools aren’t as comparable across the board.
Since this summer, a panel of lawmakers, economists and business people has been working on major changes to Georgia’s tax code, searching especially for different ways to raise revenue and eliminate loopholes. Before the beginning of the session, they will draft a bill and the Legislature will have to vote it up or down.
“Unlike Washington,” Millar said, “we’re not allowed to print money so were going to have to make cuts.”
Parent, whose district lines Buford Highway through much of DeKalb County, predicts “illegal immigration will attract a lot of media attention.”
Jacobs agreed lawmakers likely would talk about immigration. “Generally speaking, I think we have to realize that public resources are finite, as they should be, and public benefits, other than those constitutionally mandated, should be saved for people who are legally in this country. We don’t have an infinite public purse.”
Parent also said a proposed metro-area sales tax to pay for transportation improvements may get new attention. Last year, the Legislature agreed to put the question to a metro referendum, but now they’re getting pushback from local officials for the idea of adding a new sales tax for transportation on top of the MARTA penny sales tax. “Not all my constituents are happy about that idea,” she said.