Monday, November 23, 2009

Analysis: Next legislative session will be painful

By Walter C. Jones | Morris News Service
The coming legislative session will be known for pain.
Past sessions became known for the dominant legislation debated, such as school reform in 2000, the statewide water plan in 2008 and redistricting in countless years. The 2010 session, which convenes Jan. 11, will be characterized not by a single issue but by the prevailing atmosphere. Consider the factors: budget deficits demanding either historic cuts or gigantic tax increases, a lame-duck governor, a lieutenant governor who bowed out of the governor's race, a speaker who is clinically depressed and fielding calls for his resignation, multiple legislators out of work and more facing personal financial crisis, and unemployment topping 10 percent when the trust fund that pays benefits is broke. If that isn't enough, remember the massive issues that remain unsolved from past sessions. There has been no solution to pay for transportation or a statewide trauma-care network, and a federal judge has imposed a nearly impossible deadline for finding alternative water supplies for about a fourth of the state population. Add to that mix the fact that it's an election year with seemingly half the state's officials running for higher office and the other half determined to foil any legislative successes they might otherwise campaign on. Plus, 2010 is the year of the census, meaning reapportionment the next year will redraw the map of legislative districts, destroying some lawmakers' safe seats and completely eliminating others, especially in south Georgia. With that prospect hanging over everyone's heads, there is likely to be plenty of jockeying for leverage in reapportionment while others fight their fleeting chance to pass their own signature legislation or accept approaching retirement. "I've been there a while, and to be honest with you, it's not fun anymore," said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton. Some of the fun had already worn off last session when then-Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, pushed to punish lawmakers who were chronically behind in their taxes. Although the tax-exposure measure passed, few legislators reveled in it. Many said privately that the recession would undoubtedly add to the list of nonpayers. Last session, legislators spent weeks looking at every spending item but still essentially passed Gov. Sonny Perdue's blueprint with little change. In it, he mostly imposed across-the-board cuts for every department, letting each agency decide how to implement them. This time, lawmakers say they want to eliminate whole programs rather than spreading the cuts across the agencies. The market-oriented Georgia Public Policy Foundation is already thinking up a list of programs for the ax.

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