The General Assembly completed its 40th and final legislative day April 14.
Since January, lawmakers have been at the Capitol working to resolve the tough issues facing Georgians, including producing a balanced spending plan for the state, curbing the influx of illegal immigration and putting the HOPE Scholarship on a sustainable path for future generations.
To fulfill our constitutional obligation, the legislature passes a balanced budget every year to ensure that the state does not spend more than it takes in.
This fiscally conservative approach prevents us from running up any debt and helps maintain our AAA bond rating.
This year, we were faced with filling a $1.5 billion shortfall, primarily due to expiring federal stimulus funds.
Our spending plan for FY 2012 totals $18.2 billion, which is 13.6 percent below the 2009 budget.
Some of the highlights include $18 million to cover loans in the unemployment insurance trust fund, $12.9 million to the department of revenue to recover uncollected taxes, $45 million to fund reservoir development and $32 million for the Savannah Harbor Deepening Project.
We also dedicated funds to address the projected $273 million shortfall in the State Health Benefit Plan and to improve state agencies’ frontline services to consumers and businesses. To save money, we are consolidating payroll services for a number of state agencies and programs and eliminating all state funding for the aviation, music and sports halls of fame, making them self-sufficient.
One of our first priorities when session began this year was to save the HOPE Scholarship from bankruptcy.
We knew we had to act fast, and with the cooperation of the governor and our colleagues in the House, we passed a bill that ensures HOPE will be available for generations of students in the future.
We did this by adjusting the scholarship amount annually based on lottery revenues, rather than tuition.
Students attending public colleges and universities will receive 90 percent of the Fiscal Year 2011 tuition rate, and those attending private institutions will receive $3,600.
The bill also creates the Zell Miller Scholarship program to reward students with a 3.7 GPA or higher and who received at least a 1,200 SAT score or scored at least a 26 on the ACT.
The bill also ensures that Georgia’s Pre-K program will continue to be a full-day, universal program serving 4-year-olds throughout the state.
We’re also adding an additional 2,000 slots and dedicating $3.6 million to increase the program’s quality.
In the final hours of the legislative session, the Senate and House reached agreement on a bill aimed at curbing illegal immigration in Georgia.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 requires businesses with 10 or more employees to use E-Verify, the federal online program used to verify an employee’s citizenship.
Small businesses will have an additional six months to come under the E-Verify requirement, and companies who commit “good faith” violations have 30 days to correct the error before facing penalties.
In response to concerns about how the bill’s provisions would impact Georgia agriculture, the bill calls for a study about how the legislation would affect the industry and the federal guest worker program.
The legislation also makes it a crime to knowingly transport illegal immigrants, while committing another criminal offense, and allows law enforcement officers to verify a person’s immigration status while investigating a criminal suspect.
The bill now goes before the governor for his approval.
In support of local control, the legislature approved a bill to allow local governments to vote on permitting the sale of alcohol on Sundays.
The bill does not mandate that anyone sell alcohol on Sunday; rather, it lets citizens decide if they want to allow it in their own communities.
In addition to operating under a fiscally conservative budget, the legislature is also considering a major overhaul of the state’s tax code to make our state more economically competitive and to develop a tax structure that benefits Georgia residents. After months of study last year, a council of business and economic leaders delivered recommendations to the legislature on how to overhaul Georgia’s tax system.
Based on the council’s suggestions, lawmakers drafted a bill aimed at flattening the tax code, primarily by cutting income taxes by 23 percent.
To ensure the development of sound public policy, the legislature plans to continue analyzing the data and will revisit the issue next year.
As a freshman senator, there was a steep learning curve as the legislature jumped right into working on several contentious issues this year.
I am honored to represent the 51st Senate District during such a pivotal time for our state, and hope that you’ll call on me if I can ever be of service.
Sen. Steve Gooch represents the 51st Senate District, which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Pickens and Union counties and portions of Forsyth and White counties. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.