ATLANTA - Any talk of reinstating the sales tax on groceries is "a nonstarter" as talks about tax reform are set to resume in the upcoming General Assembly, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said Tuesday.
Cagle told The Associated Press that any serious conversations involving tax reform should focus on a continued effort to streamline government, not to increase taxes.
"Putting the sales tax back on groceries is a nonstarter for me," Cagle said. "What I've tried to do is downsize state government, make it more efficient, talk about budgetary reforms and try to operate on less revenue. What most people have been attempting to do is fill holes in the budget with revenue enhancements. That's not something that I'm interested in."
Tax reform was set to be a key part of the Republican agenda during last year's legislative session, but the issue stalled amid confusion over the actual fiscal impact on residents - including concerns raised by Democrats and tea party activists that the proposed changes would hurt a large number of middle-class Georgians.
Lawmakers return to the state Capitol on Monday. In addition to tax reform, they will wrestle with balancing the budget, taxes and criminal justice reform. Cagle said there also will be a focus on job creation, making Georgia a more competitive, business-friendly environment.
"Our focus has to continue to be on jobs and understanding that government in itself doesn't create jobs, but we do create the right circumstances," Cagle said, pointing to funding for the deepening of the Savannah port and for research institutions to make Georgia more attractive.
The Senate will continue to operate under a leadership structure implemented last session that forces Cagle to share power with other GOP leaders, but Cagle maintains that he is still head of the chamber.
"The leader in the Senate is the lieutenant governor," said Cagle, who is still in charge of day-to-day operations, but no longer has the power to appoint committee chairmen. "Last year illustrated that chaos occurs in the absence of leadership, and we really didn't have leadership last year. This year is going to be very, very different. We're going to be far more engaged and far more active because, quite candidly, the experiment last year was not successful."
Cagle said the current leadership structure is hurting the Senate, and pointed out that no major legislation originated in the Senate last year. He said the issue is not about him, but about preserving the institution.
Despite a slight rise in state revenues, Cagle said increased enrollment in Medicaid, the state health benefits plan and K-12 and higher education will make for another challenging state budget process. Still, Cagle said he is committed to balancing the budget without raising taxes, and continuing to find ways to make state government smaller.
"It's good to be in an environment where revenue is coming in," Cagle said. "What it tells us is it does appear that we have hit bottom and we're beginning to see some upward mobility in the economy. We still have to be somewhat guarded. ... The takeaway is that agencies should not be looking for increased budgets."
Cagle said he expects such issues likely will be a factor in this year's elections for all of Georgia's legislative seats. Lawmakers face added pressure this year as they must work to win over voters who are now part of their newly drawn legislative districts.
"Typically, in election years, the legislature is somewhat resistant to a lot of controversy," Cagle said. "Usually, by and large we try to get business done at a little faster pace so people can get focused on their re-election. Good policy makes for good politics. If you do a good job, you don't have to worry about re-election."