DALTON, Ga. - Area legislators said balancing the budget will be the main focus of the Georgia General Assembly's upcoming session.
"It's going to be a rough year in Atlanta," said Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta. "The primary issues are going to be budget, budget and budget."
Rep. Dickson; Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold; Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton; and Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, spoke at a legislative preview breakfast Thursday hosted by the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce. About 140 people attended the event at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center.
Rep. Williams said revenues are short about $1.2 billion. In a phone interview, Bert Brantley, Gov. Sonny Perdue's spokesman, said the fiscal year began with a budget of about $18.6 billion and the governor has since cut about $900 million.
Upcoming cuts will affect many areas, including education, which now is about 56 percent of the total budget, according to Rep. Dickson.
"I think the first thing you're going to see out of the legislature this year, in terms of education, is increasing the flexibility the systems will have in order to deal with budgetary cuts," he said.
One step, he said, may be to increase maximum class size.
Rep. Williams said state leaders hope to receive close to $1 billion in federal stimulus money, which will offset revenue shortfalls in some areas.
Sen. Thomas said the state's bond rating remains high, which will move some projects forward.
But legislators said they'll work to address other issues.
Rep. Weldon said they are "looking at some ways that we can make it easier for businesses," noting last year's Jobs Opportunity and Business Success Act, sponsored by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger.
The bill proposed tax credits and incentives for businesses hiring unemployed workers, such as a $2,400 tax credit for hiring someone on unemployment benefits and keeping him or her employed for 24 months.
The bill was vetoed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, Rep. Weldon said.
"Hopefully, we can work with the governor's office this year to sponsor some similar legislation," he said.
Rep. Dickson said lawmakers may study property taxes, including a proposal to cap property reassessments at 3 percent. They also may look at allowing local governments to replace some property taxes with a 1 percent sales tax, he said.
Rep. Williams said lawmakers again will study a regionwide and statewide local sales tax option to fund transportation projects.
Sen. Thomas mentioned some health topics he'll focus on, such as childhood obesity.
Lawmakers said they also expect to have ethics discussions after the resignation of House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram.
Mr. Richardson resigned in December after allegations that he'd had an affair with a lobbyist. The House Republican Caucus voted for Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, as his replacement.