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Getting down to business
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Every January, legislators from across the state convene at the Georgia State Capitol to set the course for Georgia's future. Because 2014 is the second half of a legislative biennial term, bills that did not pass in 2013 are still eligible for consideration in addition to the new bills introduced this year - which means legislators have a significant pile of work (literally, when you think about the stacks of printed bills on our desks...) ahead of us.

That said, legislators quickly got down to work on Jan. 13, the first day of the legislative session.

This year will be a shorter, more efficient session for several reasons.

First, there is pressure to reach day 40 earlier than previous years because of a shift in election qualifying dates.

Georgia is now required to have at least 45 days of absentee balloting before the date of a runoff or primary election where a federal candidate is on the ballot, which means qualifying for public office will begin on March 3 and run through March 7.

Second - and more importantly - a shorter legislative session saves Georgia taxpayers a substantial amount of money in per diem and temporary workers salary costs.

The shift in election qualifying dates has not only encouraged a shorter legislative session, but it brought the first piece of legislation to the Senate floor in 2014. House Bill 310 has passed the Senate by substitute and if enacted, will revise the schedule of state and local candidate elections to correspond with federal candidate election dates.

Maintaining two separate election calendars places a heavy burden on state resources and would likely require a costly update to technology infrastructure. By combining the two calendars into one streamlined schedule, the state will be able conserve both state resources and taxpayer dollars.

Gov. Nathan Deal also presented his annual "State of the State" address during the first week of session, highlighting the steps our state has taken to preserve our state's fiscally responsible reputation. As a result, Georgia businesses have added about 217,000 new jobs to our state in the past three years; the state unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in five years; our "rainy day fund" has grown by 518 percent over the past three years; and Georgia is one of only 10 states that still maintains a AAA bond rating from all three major agencies. The federal government doesn't even have that distinction.

Although Georgia still faces its share of challenges, the governor's proposed budgets for FY 2014 Amended and FY 2015 provide a positive outlook towards the future. Deal has proposed a budget increase from $19.9 billion in FY 2014 to $20.8 billion in FY 2015, including a large funding increase for K-12 and Higher Education initiatives. This is great news for Georgia schools, as this $547 million increase will allow local school districts to restore instructional days, end teacher furloughs and increase teacher salaries. I look forward to sharing a closer and more in-depth look at Deal's budget proposals and Georgia's economic outlook in my next column.

Senate committees have already started meeting to review bills moving through the legislative process, and I am grateful for the opportunity to continue serving as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Georgia's transportation infrastructure not only needs to be reliable, but it needs to be safe. This committee's biggest task moving forward will be exploring ways to increase transportation funding without additional taxpayer burdens.

Many citizen groups visit their state capitol during the legislative session. Please let me know if you plan to visit the Georgia State Capitol this year. We will be glad to meet with you. I am honored to have the Rev. Michael Rodgers from Bethlehem Baptist Church in Dahlonega serve as my Chaplain of the Day this week.

I am honored and humbled that you have placed your faith in me to represent District 51's best interests at the Georgia State Capitol. Feel free to contact my office at any time to talk about pending legislation or address other concerns in our district -my door and phone lines are always open.

Sen. Steve Gooch can be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via email at