published Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Budget biggest worry for legislators

DALTON, Ga. — Grappling with the state budget, health care and education is high on the agenda for three Republicans who represent Northwest Georgia in the state House of Representatives.

As for introducing new legislation -- not so much.

"I haven't seen a big push for a lot of new laws," said District 5 Rep. John Meadows, of Calhoun.

Meadows would know. He's chairman of the Rules Committee that decides whether a bill lives or dies.

Meadows visited Dalton State College on Friday along with District 1 Rep. Jay Neal, of LaFayette, and District 6 Rep. Tom Dickson, of Cohutta. The three lawmakers shared their expectations for the legislative year during an informal hourlong talk with the media.

"The main thing's going to be the budget," Meadows said.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal ordered most state agencies to cut 3 percent from their budgets during the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years.

The state may have a Medicaid shortfall of $300 million to $700 million, Meadows said. Medicaid, which covers 1.6 million disabled and low-income Georgians, is funded by the state and federal government.

"We don't have the luxury of the federal government where we can print money," Meadows said.

One health care issue the Legislature will struggle with is whether to continue the state's Medicaid provider fee, or "bed tax," that's due to expire.

The fee lets the state collect 1.45 percent of net patient revenue from hospitals and use it to draw matching federal money for indigent health care. If it expires, Georgia's Medicaid system could lose $430 million annually, officials said.

"We know of 26 hospitals that would close," Meadows said, including the Murray Medical Center in Chatsworth, which is in Meadows' district.

Dickson, a former educator who's done everything from driving a school bus and teaching to serving as superintendent of schools, was asked about the effects of publicly financed, privately owned charter schools.

"That will not take money from existing schools," he said.

Asked about the proposed $1 billion new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, Neal said the state's only involvement would be allowing the bonds to be sold.

The cost of the stadium would be paid by the Falcons and a tax on Atlanta hotel visitors. That's a better deal than the team's current field, the Georgia Dome, which Neal said was 100 percent publicly funded.

"The [proposed] stadium is a pretty good deal for the state of Georgia," Neal said. "Us propping up the Falcons -- that's not the reality of what this deal is about."

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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