With the recent flip of the calendar from 2010 to 2011, it is almost time for the Georgia General Assembly to convene again for its annual 40 day session beginning on January 10th. I wanted to take the opportunity to give a preview of some of the prominent issues that will be considered by the State House and Senate this year. Before I do that, however, I would like to wish all of the readers of this column a very blessed and happy new year. I would also like to again say thank you to the citizens of Fayette County for giving me the opportunity to serve our home in the State House. I will be sworn in as a member of the Georgia General Assembly for my third term on January 10th, and please know I continue to believe the greatest honor of my professional career is to serve a wonderful community like ours.
The General Assembly has been forced to deal with some challenging issues in recent years brought on by the historic economic downturn and the resulting unemployment. I have written much in recent years about the state’s budget difficulties that have resulted in billions in spending cuts and a large reduction in the size of our state government. This has not been an easy process, but the good news is that our state maintains its balanced budget and we remain among the three lowest per-capita spending states in the country. While the state’s economy is beginning to show some signs of stabilization, we will have another session of very difficult choices, with many predicting we will need to make well in excess of $1 billion in spending reductions to keep our budget balanced. It is critical we continue to balance our budget by reducing spending and the size of government rather than look to Georgia’s families and businesses for additional revenue through the enactment of broad based tax increases. Further, we must continue the process we have engaged in over the past three years to scrutinize every dollar that is being spent by the state government to ensure taxpayers are receiving the greatest value possible for their hard earned state tax dollars.
Along those lines, I am very hopeful that a measure I have strongly supported and co-sponsored in recent years, the Zero Based Budgeting Act, will be brought up very quickly in the legislative session for consideration by the State House. The measure passed both the House and Senate last year but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Perdue. It will give current and future legislatures another tool in the effort to ensure agencies are spending tax dollars in the most efficient manner possible.
The Georgia unemployment rate continues to hover above 10 percent, and it is vital that we continue to promulgate policies that promote job creation, business expansion and business relocation to Georgia so that Georgia’s 650,000 unemployed can get back to work as soon as possible. Relatively speaking, Georgia is an incredibly well managed state considering the fact we are one of only a small handful of states to maintain its AAA bond rating through the current fiscal crisis and are among the lowest tax states in the country. However, we must continue to look at our tax code to ensure we are poised as a state to remain an economically vibrant and competitive state for generations to come. In that regard, last year the General Assembly created a Tax Reform Council whose mission was to comprehensively study our state’s tax code and provide recommendations to House and Senate on potential reforms. The Council will be releasing its findings in the coming days, and I very much look forward to reviewing the product of their months of study and public input. I strongly believe that we, as a state, need to move our tax code to one that is more consumptive based and less reliant on the taxing of individual and corporate income. Numerous states have moved in this direction and it is already bearing fruit for those states from an economic development standpoint. This is an issue that will surely receive serious consideration this session.
Another issue that must be addressed this session is the financial solvency of the HOPE scholarship program. HOPE has been very successful over its almost two decades of existence and has helped tens of thousands Georgia students continue their education beyond high school. Unfortunately, the program is becoming a victim of its own success in that its annual benefits are exceeding the amount it is collecting in lottery receipts, its primary source of revenue. Over the last several years the state has been forced to withdraw significant sums from the program’s reserves to fund benefits. In fact, the House Budget Office recently estimated that the amount that will need to be drawn down from HOPE reserves in 2011 will be approximately $250 million. The fund’s reserves peaked in 2009 at just over $1 billion, but if current projections are accurate the fund will drop to just over $300 million in 2012, a $700 million decrease in just three years. Clearly this is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue. The House Higher Education Committee has been meeting throughout the summer and fall analyzing potential solutions to this critical issue. At the moment, all options are on the table to ensure the financial stability of this important program. Although no legislation has been filed to date, this will certainly be an issue that receives a great deal of attention this session.
Finally, an issue I have been personally involved in that will undoubtedly be hotly debated this upcoming session will be that of illegal immigration reform. Georgia has passed aggressive laws in recent years seeking to address the social and economic problems that have resulted from the federal government’s failure to secure our nation’s borders; however, more needs to be done. In that regard, Speaker Ralston and Lieutenant Governor Cagle created a Special Joint Committee on Immigration Reform this past fall, and Speaker Ralston honored me by appointing me as the House Chair of the panel. We have engaged in an exhaustive study process over the past several months in anticipation of the upcoming session and will have legislation ready to be introduced in the first two weeks of the session. I will certainly write a great deal more about this topic upon the introduction of the legislation and look forward to interacting with constituents on this important issue.
As we are set to embark on another session of the Georgia General Assembly, I again very much look forward to interacting with constituents from Fayette County. Please know how much I depend on and appreciate feedback from the citizens of this great community. As always, please never hesitate to call on me if I may be of service.