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2009 Georgia General Assembly struggles with budget, gridlock



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"It's not a crisis," Brown says. "A crisis is something short-term that's terrible for the moment and you see your way out of it. This is more of a structural problem. We have eroded our support base over time. We are continually giving exemptions and tax breaks to corporate entities, so-called incentives to bring businesses in, and that's caused us to be in a very weak posture when it comes to our budget."

Both Essig and Brown say the proposed budget is but a short-term fix that will cut funds to accommodate the current gaps the state faces, without looking further than two years into the future.

"The problem is [the budget's] lacking any bold vision," Essig says. "The elected leadership has to tell Georgians what it takes to develop first-class health care, first-class education and first-class transportation – and be honest about ways to raise revenues to do it. And if we're not going to do it, then to stop promising that goal."

Essig suggests raising the tobacco tax, which he says would have financial and health benefits. He also says the state needs to expand the sales tax – taxing online sales, for example, which it currently doesn't do – and increase the income tax on Georgians earning higher salaries.

General Assembly leaders such as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle have stated they're not willing to raise taxes. But some legislators have already proposed revenue-generating measures. State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, filed legislation that will raise the cigarette tax by $1, a move that is estimated to generate $350 million a year.

There is one sliver of hope. State lawmakers are crossing their fingers that federal funds from the incoming Obama administration will fill some of the funding gaps. Federal money wouldn't solve the financial riddle, but it would keep the state afloat. At least for a little while.

Amid concern of the state's budget woes, there will be other issues that demand lawmakers' attention -- some say immediate attention.

Chief among them: the ever-pressing challenge of the state's notorious congestion problem.

Last year, a lack of funding to build roads, repair bridges, and introduce much needed public transit to our auto-dependent state was one of the biggest hurdles the General Assembly tried to overcome. Look around and you can see the problem was far from solved.

In the run-up to this year's session, the state's most powerful business leaders echoed their call for lawmakers to create a new funding source for transportation. The most popular idea – a 1 cent sales tax that counties could levy on themselves to fund road, rail and bridge projects – is a slightly altered version of legislation that failed by three votes in the Senate just minutes before the General Assembly adjourned in 2008.

Judging by Perdue's recent speech to lawmakers, however, we'll still be sitting in gridlock come next year. He says he'll support a new transportation tax when such a plan makes "business sense." Last week, the governor proposed a sweeping overhaul of the state's countless transportation agencies, parroting last year's line that the different groups are in need of reform before they receive more money.

Nonetheless, lawmakers are giving transportation funding another go. Last week, Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, introduced legislation that would revive the regional sales tax funding mechanism. Members of the House want a statewide 1 cent sales tax, a move that Cagle says isn't likely to pass in the Senate, over which he presides. If either moneymaking mechanism were to succeed, it would require a state constitutional referendum on the 2010 ballot. In other words, there won't be any new funds for a while.

To make matters worse, the state's only major metropolitan transit agency is in a serious pinch this year. MARTA faces an estimated $70 million operating budget shortfall. Transit agency's officials say they'll ask the Legislature for permission to use a greater percentage of a 1 cent sales tax in Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties to cover the agency's operating costs. Currently, only 50 percent of the sales tax revenue can be used for operating costs.

Perdue has indicated a willingness to fund public transit, if not MARTA specifically. The Georgia Regional Transit Authority, which Perdue oversees, has been appropriated $11.6 million by the governor for new buses to shuttle commuters from intown to the suburbs. The agency requested the funds last year as well, only to be rebuffed by lawmakers.

In terms of commuter rail, Perdue received a tongue-lashing from U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., because the governor didn't include in the budget funding for a rail line between Atlanta and Griffin, a project he said he'd support during the state's gas shortage last year.

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