Georgia legislature going back to work

Published 6:25 pm Friday, January 6, 2012

Revising Georgia’s tax code, reining in dangerous and vicious dogs, and dealing with continued budget issues, will be among the topics state lawmakers will consider during this year’s legislative session, which opens Monday in Atlanta.

The legislators who represent Decatur County in the Georgia General Assembly — House Representative Gene Maddox (R-Cairo) and State Senator John Bulloch (R-Ochlocknee) — talked this week about the issues on the minds of lawmakers.

Both Maddox and Bulloch said legislators will be looking at changing how the state government taxes property, income and other items.

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“I think we’ll look at more consumer-based taxes while reducing the strain on property owners, who have taken issue with the current system,” Bulloch said.

Legislators will also have to finalize a date to hold an election on the T-SPLOST sales tax to fund regional and local transportation projects. Legislators approved giving voters the option of creating a 10-year sales tax for transportation last year, but voters will get to decide whether their region will participate. There are different arguments for whether the vote should be taken during July’s primary election or the November general election, Maddox said.

“In general, I am against any type of taxation that we don’t absolutely need,” Maddox said. “The T-SPLOST is a fair tax because it is a sales tax that everyone would have to pay. However, I am personally undecided whether or not I would vote for it when the referendum is held.”


Finding more revenue not an easy task

While Maddox said there are certain tax exemptions legislators will look to eliminate, in order to produce more revenue, Bulloch said he believes there is support to eliminate at least one major tax on businesses.

“Georgia is one of only five or six states nationwide that still have a tax on energy use,” Bulloch said. “I think having the tax is detrimental to attracting manufacturing facilities that might look at locating in Georgia … of course, if we eliminate revenue streams, we will have to find where else to cut from to make up the difference.”

Bulloch said state and local governments are still hurting from the economic downturn, despite some revenue sources picking back up within the last year.

“We’re still struggling to find revenue to pay for operation of the state government and its services,” Bulloch said. “We’re going to have to fill holes that we filled during worse economic times using federal stimulus money and other temporary money.”

Bulloch said he also understands Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has instructed Georgia’s department heads to include 2-percent cuts in their budget requests for this year.

One way in which legislators might opt to save money is by streamlining its criminal penal code. According to Bulloch, Georgia has a very high number of people serving supervised probation or parole.

“A lot of those people who are in prison or under close supervision by state officers are serving sentences for non-violent offenses or minor felonies,” Bulloch said. “We may look at alternative means for dealing with them, such as creating drug courts or setting up drug-testing centers that would monitor drug offenders without imprisoning them.”


Maddox: make dog owners more responsible

Maddox, who is a retired veterinarian, has pre-filed legislation which would strengthen Georgia law related to penalties for allowing dangerous or vicious dogs to roam free. The bill would seek to make owners of domestic animals more responsible when the animals damage property or attack other animals or humans, he said.

Currently, in the absence of stricter local animal ordinances such as the one present in Decatur County, owners aren’t legally liable the first time their dog attacks or damages property. Maddox said his proposed bill would make animals’ owners or custodians liable for damages after the first incident.

The bill would classify dogs who have attacked into two categories: “dangerous” dogs are those who scare others, attack and cause minor injury or kill another animal; “vicious” dogs are those who attack, causing serious injury to a person. The bill proposes that any dog declared vicious would be euthanized after its second attack. Like Decatur County’s ordinance, the bill would force owners of vicious dogs to properly secure them in enclosures and would also prohibit citizens from keeping more than one vicious dog at one time.

Exemptions to the bill include police or military dogs, any dogs that attack people who trespass upon private property and hunting dogs that attack other animals while on a hunt.


Drug testing for public benefits?

One topic that is sure to cause debate among legislators is whether or not to mandate drug testing for anyone applying for temporary government assistance, such as welfare or food stamps. Florida is one of several states that have begun doing so.

Both Maddox and Bulloch said they were in favor of such drug testing, so long as lawmakers ensured that children who receive Peach Care health insurance and benefit from food stamps do not suffer as a result of their guardians’ behavior. Both Maddox and Bulloch said they were in favor of measures seeking to prevent abuse of government assistance by people who did not actually qualify for them or use benefits properly.

A similar bill proposed by Republican leaders in the Georgia Senate would require that anyone, who wishes to receive unemployment benefits beyond two weeks, must perform regular volunteer community service at a non-profit organization.