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Legislature to start with budget cuts, tax reform

ATLANTA -- The legislative session that begins Monday is going to be all about money: how to spend it, how to collect it as taxes, and who should benefit from it.

Amid the swearing-in ceremonies and inaugural festivities of the session's first day a tax-reform council that has been working for months will present its formal recommendations. Its members say they want to shift away from income taxes and more toward sales taxes, but the details won't be known until the final report.

Observers have speculated that the proposal could include corporate income-tax cuts balanced by increases in the cigarette tax or removal of the sales-tax exemption on groceries.

Hearings on the recommendations are expected to keep lawmakers and special-interest groups busy for weeks.

Within days of being sworn in, Gov.-elect Nathan Deal will deliver his spending blueprint. Those details aren't known, but he has hinted that they will include deep cuts, even in education.

The state is projected to be on a spending path nearly $2 billion over the anticipated tax collections. Deal warned in mid-December that he'll be laying off a number of state workers as part of his budget cutting. He has also hinted that he'll call for bonds to be issued for the construction of reservoirs to help address metro Atlanta's anticipated water shortage.

Other budget matters expected to come up immediately are holdovers from the 2010 session.

"You're going to see the consideration of some veto overrides," said Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock.

Lawmakers will attempt to override outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue's veto of a pair of bills that would put more spending power in their hands and less in the governor's. They won't have to go back through the lengthy committee process, and Deal won't be able to veto them.

One bill would establish a sunset or end date for every state agency, requiring specific legislative approval for continued operation after the expiration date. The second bill, which imposes so-called zero-based budgeting, would require that every penny of state spending be justified each year, not just changes, as the present process requires.

Another major issue this session concerns a different kind of spending. It puts the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship and Pre-K Program under the microscope for changes in the way the money is allocated. While the lottery continues to set sales records, college tuition is going up faster, requiring reserves to make up the difference.

"The consequences are dire in the short term," Deal told legislators during a recent meeting at the University of Georgia.

Deal and other Republican leaders have said they don't want to impose income limits on who qualifies for the programs. Instead, they are likely to consider limits on benefits and tougher academic requirements to trim the number of students who qualify for HOPE.

Advocates of casinos and betting on horse races are likely to use the HOPE shortfall as a reason to expand legalized gambling. Perdue's Christian principles led him to adamantly oppose new forms of gambling.

He also blocked efforts to allow the sale of packaged alcohol on Sundays. It is expected that those efforts will be revived with his departure, even though Deal, like his predecessor, is a teetotaler.

Two issues only indirectly related to money -- ethics and immigration -- are also likely to come up early in the session.

Many campaigns this year hurled allegations of ethics violations at opponents. At the same time, ethics were an issue in the grassroots, anti-incumbent movement that became known as the tea party.

One of the tea party organizations is joining with two long-established ethics crusaders to keep the issue in the spotlight during the legislative session. The Tea Party Patriots, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause are planning a news conference this month to announce their joint agenda.

"You're going to be hearing a lot from us this session," said Julianne Thompson, the state coordinator of the Georgia chapter of the Patriots.

Immigration has already been a volatile topic. A committee was meeting to study general aspects over the summer and fall. The committee hasn't prepared legislation yet, but it intends to.

Throughout the session, the prospect of redistricting will be in the background of nearly every conversation. Lawmakers will have a special session over the summer to redraw the boundaries for every legislative and congressional district, including shoehorning in a new 14th Congressional District somewhere in north Georgia.

Most legislators will be nervous about protecting their election prospects in their own districts, but a handful will try to carve out congressional districts they think they can win.

The ambitious and the nervous alike will be trying to build up a store of political chips that they can cash in during the redistricting special session.

Web posted on Thursday, January 06, 2011

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