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Funding issues promise to be hot topic in General Assembly

There won't be any downtime for state legislators representing McDuffie County in 2004.

Several big-ticket items are set to be addressed in the upcoming legislative session, and many of them will impact McDuffie County residents. The session kicks off Jan. 13.

Perhaps the most intriguing topic will be that of public education. Sen. Joey Brush, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said that a way to balance the lingering effects of a struggling economy with the needs of school systems will be difficult.

"We're going to see some more changes in education policy, particularly in flexible spending controls for the counties," he said. "We're facing a tough budget."

Rep. Sistie Hudson also thought that the funding crisis school systems currently face -- particularly McDuffie County -- needs to be addressed, further stating that she thought the state needs to live up its promise to properly fund education.

"I hope the budget will keep improving because this is yet again another unfunded mandate. We have to operate these school systems," she said. "They can't afford more cuts. It would certainly hurt McDuffie County a great deal."

Rep. Jimmy Lord said he thought that state taxes may need to be increased to prevent institutions like education from being gutted.

"We'll have to start cutting services and employees unless we start getting money from somewhere," he said.

Sen. Brush also mentioned addressing HOPE scholarship requirements, as some lawmakers including Gov. Sonny Perdue would like to tie SAT scores into the eligibility equation to trim down on costs.

"We're trying to do something about the HOPE scholarships and make it viable, particularly linking SAT scores to HOPE qualifications. I think that's going to be a real political hot potato," said Sen. Brush.

Critics say that using the SAT as a benchmark for the scholarship is particularly unfair to those who live in predominantly rural and low-wealth communities.

Another so-called hot topic will be the status of funding the newly reformed Indigent Defense program, which provides legal counsel for those who cannot afford their own defense. The program will soon move under the umbrella of state control, and there are questions as to how the state will fund the program.

Sen. Brush speculated that the state will try to find money to fund the program anywhere it can -- even if it means using counties' fines and forfeitures fees, as it's been discussed by lawmakers.

"I think everything's on the table at this point. There's going to be a lot of debate," he said. "(Money from fines) is going to be out there."

Rep. Hudson said she hopes court fees aren't used to fund indigent defense, because counties like McDuffie need that money to operate its legal system.

"I hate to say that funding hasn't been appropriated for this, but our budget has been very restrictive, so we haven't been able to fund it. I think a lot of people in Atlanta have a lot of ideas on how to fund it, including local fees. That would be of course an unfunded mandate if you took those fines away from those counties, because that's how they operate their courts," she said.

Rep. Hudson said that she expects McDuffie County to opt out of the program, which will require the county to meet several minimum requirements. The details of the process are expected to be finalized in the upcoming session.

Sen. Ralph Hudgens said that tort reform will be something that state legislators must address, specifically when it comes to frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits.

"Until we get limits on the non-economic damages -- the 'pain and suffering' awards -- because that's all we're asking for...I've got six rural hospitals in my senatorial district that experienced anywhere from a 400 to 900 percent increase in their medical malpractice premiums," he said. "We've got to readdress that issue. Let's get something meaningful that will get these insurance providers back into the state and get some competition going between the providers of malpractice insurance."

Web posted on Thursday, January 8, 2004

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