First weeks set positive direction

Published 11:24 am Friday, January 23, 2009

Atlanta—The first couple of weeks of the 2009 Legislative Session outlined the productive direction we will take for the rest of the year. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, we will be taking on balancing the budget while addressing critical issues that affect all of Georgia’s citizens.

Fiscal responsibility is the theme for this year’s session and with it, only essential programs and services should be funded.

Gov. Sonny Perdue stated that education will take on “ambitious plans” by setting high standards for school districts and rewarding excellence in students and teachers.

Transportation matters will be centered on producing reliable and stress-free routes for travel.

By investing in alternative energy we will create new jobs for our increasing unemployment rates while a “Work Ready” system will make Georgians more marketable for employers.

This week, the Senate and House Appropriations committees began our joint budget hearings at the state Capitol in which Perdue administration leaders presented their agency’s budgets. The meeting began with Gov. Perdue outlining the overall budget proposal emphasizing the need for government to provide the most value to its citizens with the resources available.

He noted that education funding is critically important in shaping the state’s future and has proposed a $1.2 billion bond package to invest in education infrastructure.

Gov. Perdue also encouraged passage of his “Super Speeder” legislation, where fines for excess speeding will be dedicated to funding a trauma care network. This proposal, previously proposed in 2008, answers the call of many across the state to strengthen Georgia’s limited trauma care system.

Dr. Kenneth Heaghney, the state fiscal economist, presented Georgia’s current economic position and forecast. After listing the downward trends Georgia has recently experienced across all economic sectors, including an average loss of 17,000 jobs a month, Dr. Heaghney said he predicts the state will begin to see a mild recovery in the middle of 2009.

Departments and agencies then delivered presentations focused on what impact a $2.2 billion budget shortfall will have on their programs. Following Gov. Perdue’s ambitious plans for education, State School Superintendent Kathy Cox outlined several new goals she plans to implement to meet the pressing needs of Georgia’s students, including increasing high school graduation rates, strengthening teacher quality, improving students’ workforce readiness skills, developing strong educational leaders, improving test scores, and creating policies that ensure the maximum academic and financial accountability.

A major concern for the General Assembly is the reduction in school nurses for 2010. Nurses are contracted through this year, but could be eliminated in 2010.

Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Gena Evans, led us through this year’s budget reorganization for transportation. Georgia is now the third fastest growing state in the nation while simultaneously being the second lowest with transportation resources. Because of this, Evans reiterated the importance of acute financial reorganization to meet our critical transportation needs with our decreased budget. Evans assured us that the department has paid careful attention to cutting costs without sacrificing service, but noted that the legislature will need to redirect funds in order for the department to meet immediate transportation needs in fiscal year 2010.

DOT is also working on preparing projects for immediate implementation in the event that Georgia receives funding from a federal economic stimulus package.

Our legislative session has had a strong start into this year, and I am confident that we can accomplish a smart, balanced budget, and valuable legislation will help Georgia’s economic development and lead us through these tough times.