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Local lawmakers prepare for session
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A budget for the upcoming fiscal year will take center stage next week when state representatives gather in Atlanta for the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly.
Local legislators say finding ways to balance the state’s finances will be priority number one when doors open at the Capitol Monday.
“Obviously, the state budget is going to be the feature of the session,” said State Sen. Jack Hill, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “The question is going to be whether or not our revenues will be sufficient.”
According to a report issued by the Senate Research Office in December, legislators forming a 2012-13 budget will need to address an approximately $1 billion shortfall that is currently projected.
“The primary components of this shortfall are needs in Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan,” in addition to growth in regents, technical schools and K-12 education, the report said.
“(Revenue) has been growing at about five percent over the first six months of this fiscal year,” said Hill, who represents a district that includes Bulloch, Effingham and several area counties. “That same growth rate extrapolated over the next year will not quite produce everything we are going to need.”
 “There are a lot of unknowns,” he said. “Gross (revenue) is going to need to increase a bit. The question is: where are we headed in this national economy?”
Though tax revenue is expected to increase in coming months, a still-weak economy could mean future cuts.
“It is a widely known fact that the budget is going to yet again be an issue. A potential revenue shortfall is the most worrisome thing,” said Georgia House Representative Jan Tankersley, a Republican who serves portions of Bryan and Bulloch counties. “We are going to try very hard not to make deeper cuts into K-12 and higher education because they have really stepped up to the plate in an effort to help the state come into line.”

Funding education
Regardless of a shortfall, Hill said legislators are committed to funding programs for K-12 and higher education, including providing approximately $128 million to support growth in colleges and technical schools around the state.
In Statesboro, both Georgia Southern University and Ogeechee Technical College have grown dramatically in recent years and would receive supporting funds, he said.
Still, legislators are optimistic that budget cuts will not be necessary.
“We need to have strong growth, and we are all very hopeful that it will happen,” Hill said. “The state continues to grow. We still have about the fourth-fastest growing state in the country even during this down economy.”
Though the budget will dominate the floor, Tankersley said lawmakers expect to examine a host of issues, including potential tax reform and portions of immigration policies passed last year.

Saving on prisons
Representatives are also expected to research ways to save major dollars in spending on state prisons, she said.
“Criminal justice reform is a real big issue,” said Tankersley. “Projections say that we will have more and more people jailed; and currently, the expense of keeping a prisoner in the State of Georgia is just exorbitant.”
“With reform measures that I’m sure will be put on the floor, we will try to be smarter about where we put our tax dollars,” she said. “We have to be.”
Tankersley said one option is increasing funding for mental and alcohol/drug courts throughout the state, to rehabilitate offenders without giving lengthy jail sentences. 
Another piece of legislation will be introduced to prevent the spread of a drug that has had an impact around the country, including recent cases in Bulloch County.
“I know that we will introduce a piece of legislation about the Spice or K-2 drug,” Tankersley said. “Since that devastating event that took place in Bulloch County (in September, a Statesboro man was charged with brutally attacking his girlfriend while under the influence of Spice) I have worked closely with GBI, state and local law enforcement to put language into the Spice bill that would hopefully make it impossible for those who manufacture that deadly drug from going around the law and changing ingredients to make it legal again.”
Currently, manufactures work to produce the drug using new compounds that have yet to be identified and placed on a list of illegal substances. The new legislation hopes to make illegal any possible alterations of the substance.
Beginning Monday, legislators will be in session for 40 days. 

Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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