By Joe Earle

joeearle@reporternewspapers.net

Balancing the Georgia state budget in 2011 will require more cuts, north DeKalb and north Fulton legislators say, and the coming trims could include painful cuts to education.

“It’s going to be a very  trying time,” new state Sen. Fran Millar told residents attending a legislative forum at Dunwoody United Methodist Church on Jan. 11, a day before the 2011 General Assembly was scheduled to convene. “I hate to be doom and gloom, but that’s the way it is.”

The state budget already has been cut from $21.5 billion to $17.5 billion in recent years because of falling state revenues during the economic recession, they said, but state officials face another budget shortfall of more than $1.2 billion this year. The state has used federal stimulus funds to soften the effect of the cuts in past years, the legislators said,  but that money is not expected to be made available this year.

Miller, Sen. John Albers and Rep. Wendell Willard, whose districts include Sandy Springs, Rep. Tom Taylor of Dunwoody and Reps. Mike Jacobs and Elena Parent, who represent portions of north DeKalb including Brookhaven, took part in two separate hour-long discussions about the upcoming session. About 130 residents attended the two sessions.

The lawmakers predicted the Legislature will reduce the size of the DeKalb school board to seven members, vote to allow local communities to allow sales of alcoholic beverages on Sunday and consider whether to follow the recommendations of a state commission to cut income taxes and raise “consumption” taxes. Legislators also could consider changes to the way HOPE scholarships are rewarded, Millar said.

Millar, a Dunwoody Republican and veteran member of the House of Representatives who was elected last year to his first term in the state Senate, predicted cuts would have to be made in education, because, he said, it takes up 45 percent of the state budget.

“I think you’re going to see cuts in education,” Millar said. “You’re going to see further cuts in everything, but they’re going to be more pronounced in education.”

The proposed tax increases, presented by the Special Council for Tax Reform and Fairness, include reinstating the 4 percent sales tax on groceries that was repealed in the 1990s, raising cigarette taxes and instituting some taxes on services, the lawmakers said. Eliminating the grocery sales tax exemption could raise about $650 million, they said.

The commission’s basic idea is to balance state collections, reducing the state’s dependence on income taxes, Willard said. Shifting the collecting of taxes to sales taxes means the state will better be able to tax the “underground economy” where business is done in cash, new Dunwoody Rep. Tom Taylor said.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.