As state lawmakers head back to the Gold Dome in 2013, they have a lot to think about.
Each year, the state budget looms as a daunting task, and this year is no different. Georgia is a balanced budget state, meaning that tough cuts must be made when revenues are down.
“It’s going to be a difficult financial year for the state. The budget picture in particular looks bleak,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-DeKalb.
The hospital bed tax, which collects funds for indigent care, expires this year, Holcomb said.
“That is going to be a pretty intense debate about whether that tax gets extended or not extended. There’s some pretty extensive repercussions either way,” he said. “From everything I’ve been told, the budget cannot be balanced unless there’s some action taken on the bed tax.”
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, said the tax on hospital stays was implemented under Gov. Sonny Perdue as a way to fund a hole in the state’s Medicaid program.
“It was a big issue a couple years ago and it’s likely to be a big issue again this year,” Jacobs said.
Lawmakers also plan to address ethics. Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, said the Senate has proposed a $100 gift cap, while the House of Representatives is looking at a zero gifts policy for legislators.
“Ethics reform is probably the top issue this session. I would imagine we will see some kind of ban or restriction on lobbyist gifts. Whatever it is, I’m for it,” Jacobs said.
Taylor, who serves on the MARTA Oversight Committee, known as MARTOC, said legislators plan to make some changes to the struggling rapid transit agency. He said the committee will look at ways to save money, including outsourcing functions such as human resources and janitorial services.
“This year we will be reopening the MARTA act for the first time in 43 years, which should be rather interesting,” Taylor said.
Jacobs, the MARTOC chair, said there will be MARTA legislation introduced this year. It will relax the required 50-50 split on operational and capital spending for an additional three years. It will also shift some of the appointments on the MARTA board, particularly the Fulton County appointments, giving more power to local mayors, Jacobs said.
“This is a bill we had last session that didn’t make the cut on the final day of last year’s legislative session, and the bill’s sponsors, including myself, intend to bring it back. It probably also will contain some other reform measures,” Jacobs said.
The Legislature may also take action on the DeKalb County School District, if necessary. The school system was recently placed on accreditation probation by AdvancED, an accrediting agency.
Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), who chairs the Senate education committee, said at a recent forum that DeKalb County schools are his No. 1 priority. “I’m guardedly optimistic we can turn this thing around,” Millar said.
A Jan. 17 hearing of the Georgia Board of Education is scheduled to consider suspending the DeKalb school board members.
If the state board recommends suspension, Gov. Nathan Deal will have the authority to do so.
“We could not intervene until SACS put DeKalb County Schools on one step away from losing accreditation,” Millar said.
Jacobs said it may not be necessary for legislators to intervene.
“Obviously, the school board being placed on probation is of great concern to parents like myself and DeKalb county citizens in general,” Jacobs said. “I tend to believe they should be removed. But there’s a statutory process to be followed in order for that to happen, and we’ll know within the next month or two how that process has played itself out. And then there may or may not be a role for the Legislature to play.”
Dunwoody’s City Council asked Taylor to sponsor legislation to explore creating an independent city school system. At a recent legislative forum at Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Taylor emphasized that such a measure would be incredibly difficult to put into law, as it would require support from two-thirds of the House and Senate to amend the state constitution.
“That is a big deal and requires a state constitutional amendment,” Taylor said.
He encouraged residents who support the idea of a Dunwoody school district to raise money for a feasibility study, similar to those conducted during new cities’ incorporation efforts.
“Bottom line is: education will dominate. It always has. It’s about two-thirds of the budget,” Millar said.