By Ashley Speagle
ATLANTA -- The Georgia General Assembly will convene Monday to debate jobs, water, education, guns, ethics and other key issues, but not without first tackling the biggest hurdle -- budget cuts.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, and Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, who serve on the House Appropriations Committee, said the panel will begin budget hearings on the second day of the session.
Departments will propose their budget recommendations to the House and Senate appropriations committees, where committee members will determine budget cuts.
Rep. Neal said $1 billion to $1.5 billion may be cut, and Rep. Williams said he anticipates $1.3 billion or more in budget cuts.
"The current (revenue) projection is $900 million below the (fiscal year) 2010 budget, as announced in July," said Bert Brantley, Gov. Sonny Perdue's director of communications. "But we're about $1 billion down for the year even before the December revenues come out."
Education, health care and public safety account for the majority of budget money and, though legislators and the governor say these will remain priorities, they must cut money somewhere.
"We've protected education and health care; however, a lot of the budget is tied up in these two areas," Rep. Neal said. "With the amount of cuts we'll be making, the projected cuts will be just about everywhere."
To complicate matters for lawmakers, the need for unpopular budget cuts comes in advance of state House and Senate elections in November.
The governor's office said very few funding opportunities will be available for departments, but Rep. Neal recommends more money for the Department of Revenue.
"They're having a difficult time collecting taxes," he said. "If we could add some officers to collect those funds, we may look at that."
Fiscal year 2010 revenue decreased 13.7 percent compared with the previous year, according to the governor's January news release.
"The good thing is I think we are prepared," Gov. Sonny Perdue said at a news conference Friday to swear in newly appointed Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
"We've been incrementally adjusting to month-by-month revenue estimates. I don't believe there'll be a lot of surprises where the numbers are," Gov. Perdue said. "Everyone that has any kind of business, or organization, or nonprofit, or whatever, they understand the challenges of revenue reduction."
Lawmakers have said they don't expect any moves to raise taxes.
"We are very reluctant to make any increases to raise revenue," Rep. Neal said. "We'll be looking at balancing the budget with cuts rather than raising revenue."
Rep. Williams said he would prefer to look into furloughs and layoffs instead of raising taxes. He said the state's reserve fund "is about drained to the bottom."
Since June 2008, nearly 96 percent of the state's reserve funds was used to make up for shortfalls in the fiscal 2009 and 2010 budgets. Now, $49.5 million is available for this year's amended budget, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
"While we would love to have money in the reserve fund, we're just trying to keep the ship afloat at this point," Mr. Brantley said.
The reserve fund also reached lows in 2003 and 2004 after budget cuts, he said, but was rebuilt with surpluses from conservative revenue estimates.
Georgia also will receive more than $630 million in federal stimulus money for the fiscal 2011 general budget, with the majority allocated for education stabilization.
"The funds have helped tremendously," Mr. Brantley said. "Had we had to make cuts in health care, education and public safety, we would've seen layoffs in all of these areas."
The lack of reserve and federal stimulus funds will make the 2011 amended budget difficult "even with the projected growing economy and budget in 2012," he said.
WHAT'S COMING UP
* Monday: Georgia Legislature convenes at the Gold Dome
* Wednesday: Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue delivers his State of the State address in which he traditionally discusses his budget recommendations.
BY THE NUMBERS
* $18.6 billion: Fiscal year 2010 budget (as signed by governor)
* $900 million: Revenue shortfall in fiscal 2010
* $717 million: Federal stimulus funding for 2010
* $634 million: Federal stimulus funding for 2011
Source: State budget, Gov. Sonny Perdue's office
* 58.1 percent: Education
* 19 percent: Health care
* 8.1 percent: Public safety
* 6.1 percent: Debt service
* 4.4 percent: State management (executive, judicial, resource departments)
* 4.3 percent: Growing Georgia (agriculture, transportation, economic, and community development)
Source: State budget
* Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette
"We have a principled group of legislators that work hard to find compromises, providing they don't compromise our principles."
* Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold
"A jobs bill will make sure we have the infrastructure to have the edge on other states and nations."
* Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga
"We have uncollected taxes. We should enhance the Department of Revenue so we don't have to cut department money."
* Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo
"We've made cuts to education, and economic prosperity certainly depends on educated citizens."
* Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton
"Teachers can do a better job than we can in allocating money."
* Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton
"In the end we're for states' rights, but I believe Congress will need to step in and not let our state run out of water. It's fair to take water from Tennessee. It won't hurt them."
* Rep. Martin Scott, R-Rossville
"Everyone in the Southeast benefits from Atlanta's economic growth. It's to no one's advantage to see Atlanta without water."
* Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun
"I hate that we, as the House, both parties, have been thrown under a blanket of suspicion. There are folks that have done wrong, but the rest of us aren't sick."
* Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta
"Rep. Ralston has exhibited leadership in every role he's had in the Legislature. I'm really looking forward to the session now."