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Budget discussions begin with agency hearings

POSTED: January 28, 2009 9:57 a.m.

This week, as I sat with my Senate and House colleagues through state budget hearings, I was encouraged to see a sense of cooperation emerging.  Our state leaders have been advocating such cooperation since the beginning of session, as it is the only way we will solve the serious issues facing our state. 

  

I was proud to watch an historic presidential inauguration this week, and can only hope to see a similar spirit of cooperation from our colleagues in Washington.

  

No matter our political party, we must give the new administration our full support.   It is in everyone’s best interest to see our new president succeed in making the right choices for our country. 

  

On that note, you will soon see your state legislature working hard to make the right choices for Georgia in how to fund state programs. 

  

We spent the week listening to detailed presentations from various state agencies, each of which presented compelling reasons for why they need to maintain funding for their programs.  I commend each of them for the sacrifices they have already made to pare down their budgets.

  

Unfortunately, sacrifices must be made at this time, but we will ensure that this does not come at the cost of citizens who rely on the most needed of government services. 

  

The hearings began with the governor’s overview of his proposed budget and how he plans to close the $2.2 billion shortfall.  He emphasized the need to provide the most value to our citizens with the resources available.  Those resources do not include a placeholder for money from Washington, which Gov. Perdue has said he is not counting on.  We need to keep our focus on the money we have to work with, and if federal dollars come our way, the better off we will be. 

  

The governor highlighted legislation he is pursuing this year to crack down on “Super Speeders,” the fines of which will fund a trauma care network.  

  

There has been a strong outcry from across the state on the lack of a solid trauma system, where rural areas are critically underserved. 

  

According to the state fiscal economist, the revenue derived from the Super Speeder legislation, coupled with the governor’s proposed 1.6 percent fees on hospitals and insurance providers will generate over $240 million in revenue for the state. 

  

The following day, we heard a presentation from DOT Commissioner Gena Evans on the department’s budget cuts and how those reductions will impact meeting Georgia’s transportation needs. 

  

The department already faces a $189 million deficit, and the commissioner is asking the legislature to redirect funds in order to meet immediate transportation needs in FY 2010. 

  

One of my main concerns with the cuts made to DOT’s budget is the $20.4 million reduction in Local Assistance Road Program funding (LARP) and the $22 million reduction in State Aid. 

  

As I have said before, these programs are vital for local governments to maintain roads and streets and to fund needed projects, without which they may be forced to raise taxes or put projects on hold. 

  

I also hold the department accountable for the provisions of SR 1047, the resolution we passed last year that urges the DOT to privatize road maintenance functions in the counties, and consolidate county barns to save the taxpayers money. 

  

When many of my constituents are out of work and asking why these projects are being funded at their expense, it is my responsibility to ensure that the department is following through on eliminating inefficient costs. 

  

As chairman of the Economic Development Committee, I was pleased to hear Economic Development Commissioner Ken Stewart’s plan for the department to direct its funds to focus on existing businesses in Georgia to boost the economy. 

  

He also noted that the department will focus more on military programs to provide more business to our state’s suppliers. The commissioner outlined several of Georgia’s recent economic accomplishments, such as our competitive edge in securing entertainment projects after the legislature passed an entertainment incentive package last year. 

  

The recent deepening of the Savannah port will also greatly increase commerce, giving Georgia more global appeal.

  

The economy will begin to turn around, and when it does, Georgia must be positioned to take advantage of the marketplace.  I am confident that despite a reduced budget, the department will succeed in marketing the state for continued successful growth.

  

Among the other state agencies we heard presentations from were the Department of Education, Natural Resources, Corrections, Community Health, Public Safety, the University system and judicial branch. 

  

After budget hearings conclude, Senate and House Appropriations subcommittees will meet to discuss these individual budget areas in more detail. This process will be long and arduous and nobody knows for sure how long we will be in this downturn.

  

Therefore, funding of only essential constitutional and statutory programs will survive.  But that should be the case in both good times and in downturns.  

  

Sen. Chip Pearson can be reached at (404) 656-9921 or via e-mail at chip.pearson@senate.ga.gov.

 

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