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2012 legislative session begins soon with critical challenges
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The 2012 Georgia General Assembly is set to begin Monday, Jan. 9. Dawson Countys sitting senator and representative have different ideas on what will be on the agenda for the legislature this year.

Despite an economy that is making a slow upswing, money woes will still be at the root of the top issues facing the legislature, says 9th District Rep. Amos Amerson. Energy, Medicaid, funding for higher education, jobs and the budget are five of the 10 top issues Amerson believes will be on the legislators plates this year.

The biggest issue facing the General Assembly, other than balancing the budget, is funding for Medicaid, Amerson said.

Next to funding for K-012, thats the largest par of the state budget, and its growing, he said. The American Recovery and Investment Act filled a lot of holes last year, but now that money is gone. Georgia will have to put in more money for Medicaid this yeara lot more.

Energy is another of Amersons concerns.

The volatility of energy prices has placed a strain on the economy. We need a balanced approach to energy that accounts for the environment and safety concerns, but doesnt limit production, Amerson said. We need to put a nuclear reprocessing plant somewhere in Georgia, and theres a lot of resistance to that. France has proven it efficient and safe, and the amount of waste from such a plant is negligible.

Funding higher education for those who cannot afford college, either academic or technical, is also a priority for the representative.

HOPE is a merit-based scholarship, but there is no needs-based help, and there should to be, he said.

Those who have a college diploma make a whole lot more money over time than those with only a high school diploma, Amerson said. Tuitions are up, federal grants are down. We need to find a way to help those who want to go to college or technical school.

Jobs are still a major concern for Amerson.

All the newspapers last week reported that unemployment was down, but in reality, we here in Georgia have shed millions of jobs since 2007, he said. Job creation is still a huge concern.

The budget, he said, is always at the top of the list when the legislature goes into session.

The governor has told departments they will have to make two percent cuts, despite 17 months of increased revenues. Its not pretty, and its not painless, but we have to balance the budget.

Amerson said he has a couple of pieces of legislation he is considering co-sponsorig, but has no intention of dropping any bills himself. As Chairman of the Science & Technology Committee, he said, he has no time to carry legislation forward.

He also serves on the Energy, Utilities and Tele-communications Committee, High Education and Appropriations. This year he will be adding a position on the State Planning and Community Affairs Committee at the request of the Speaker of the House. Plus, he said, a couple of ad hoc committees, so you can see why I dont really have time to shepherd a bill through the process.

He does, however, intend to work to get a bill he introduced last year passed that would allow counties and cities to place package stores on the ballot without having to get 35 percent of registered voters to sign a petition. Amersons bill would reduce that number to five percent of registered voters.

You know you cant get 35 percent of the people to agree on anything, Amerson said. That number is way too high. But we tabled the bill last year because of the strong objections of the liquor industry lobbyists. Im still working on it, and hope we can get it through this year. Thats the single piece of legislation Im will to carry.

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51st Senate District Sen. Steve Gooch believes unfinished business heads the list of issues the legislature will take up in the 2012 session.

First on that list is tax reform, he said.

That will definitely be on the table. Theres a big appetite to take sales tax off energy consumption for manufacturers. Were told by big industry experts thats a big issue for several of the big companies that have left Georgia, Gooch said. If we could get away from income tax entirely, thats what we need. Neither Florida or Tennessee have an income tax, and they are kicking our tail when it comes to recruiting business.

Three other tax issues Gooch expects to see surface again this year are a sales tax on person-to-person used car sales, labor for auto repairs and T.V. satellite receiver usethree measure he opposed last year.

The three measures put together, he said, would have lowered income taxes by one-and-a-half percent. However, he said, In my district of 200,000, the average income is less then $50,000. Those people would have paid more in the proposed sales taxes than they would have saved in income taxes.

Gooch is also predicting that the zero-based budget, a gun bill that would strengthen Second Amendment gun rights and a pro-life bill that further defines when life begins whose aim is to make sure no public monies are spent to fund abortionsall bills that passed the Senate but not the Housewill come up again this legislative session.

New this legislative session will be Senate Bill 292, on which Gooch is the third sponsor. The bill was pre-filed in November and is on the fast track to make it through the legislative process. The bill would require those receiving TANF and Medicaid to pass a drug test in order to receive benefits.

The bill is similar to legislation signed into law earlier this year in Florida for TANF recipients only. That law has been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union and other over claims it violates the Fourth Amendments protections against unlawful searches and seizures in spite of the fact that the federal Welfare Reform Act, signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, authorizes states to use chemical testing to detect substance use among TANF applicants.

We think there will probably be similar legal challenges, that the Democrats will question the constitutionality of the bill, Gooch said. But its a matter of waste, abuse and fraud. The state will be one billion dollars in the hole when ObamaCare is fully implemented. We have to find the money to pay for that somewhere.

Another new issue that will be brought before the legislature is the governors push for criminal justice reform. Results of jointly appointed Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommend alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness. Both Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston have said they will make debate on this topic a priority in the upcoming session.

I dont know where this will end up, Gooch said, but we are spending $18,000 a year to house nonviolent offenders and only $8,000 a year to educate our youngsters. Something is wrong here.

Gooch serves as Secretary of the Senate Transportation Committee, and as a member of the Economic Development Committee, Government Oversight Committee, Sate and Local Government Operations Committee and the State Institutions and Property Committee. This year he will also serve as an Ex Officio member of the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee. That appointment, he said, is one he looks forward to.

Serving on this committee puts me in a position to protect the private property rights of those in my district. When the time comes to bring up the buffer issue again, I will be ready for it.

However, Gooch doesnt expect that issue to raise its head this year. In fact, he said, hes been told this should be a relatively quiet year.

It will be quieter than usual Im told because it is an election year, he said.

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