Returning members of the area's legislative delegation won't know for sure what's on the new governor's mind until later this week, but they're sure that the budget -- with the likelihood of further cuts to state agencies and education -- will be an overriding concern this session.
Nathan Deal, who has roots in the Statesboro area, will be sworn in Monday as Georgia's 82nd governor and the second consecutive Republican to hold the office. The General Assembly will convene the same day, with Bulloch and neighboring counties represented entirely by Republicans. But the arrival of a new governor brings some uncertainties, even for members of his own party.
"I don't know what his priorities are," answered Sen. Jack Hill, explaining that he had not had any direct discussion of priorities with the governor-elect.
"He has indicated, in what I've read in the newspaper, that he's very interested in economic development and jobs for Georgians, and so I would expect that he will, either through legislation or budget, try to help enhance the state's economic development," Hill said.
This will be Hill's 21st year representing the 4th District in the state Senate. A retired independent grocer and Air Force Reserve officer from Reidsville, he expects to keep his role as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Assignments won't become official until Monday.
Rep. Butch Parrish, a pharmacist from Swainsboro, represents District 156 and is starting his 27th year. At this point, he is vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee and chair of its Economic Development Subcommittee.
"I think the priority for all of us is going to end up being the budget, whether we like it or not," Parrish said.
Based on a meeting he attended in December where the House speaker and governor-elect spoke, Parrish expects water issues, immigration, the HOPE scholarship and grant, transportation and job creation to be other top priorities.
Rep. Jon Burns, a farmer and farm supply owner from Effingham County, was first elected by District 157 in 2004. Unless assignments change, he also serves on Appropriations and chairs the House Special Rules Committee.
Like the other legislators, Burns expressed some optimism for the area's economy, but he noted that unemployment and a weak housing market remain concerns.
"We do see some bright aspects of it, with the announcement in Bulloch County of Great Dane and it Jenkins County of CCA building a private prison and some announcements in Effingham," Burns said. "But we do still have a ways to work through our problems from the private side, and we're going to continue to live within our means with the state budget, and that will be the overriding issue in this session."
Since his election in November, Deal has warned that further spending cuts, including possible reductions in school funding and layoffs of state employees, will be necessary to deal the continuing gap between state revenue and spending.
On the bright side, the state has seen gradual gains in revenue since July 2010. December brought a 6 percent increase. But Hill cautions that the gains haven't made up yet for the declines seen over the three years.
"While the revenues are better than they were last year, which was a year in which we had complete freefall, they're still anywhere from $100 million to $300 million a month under two and three years ago," he said. "We're still at the level of about 2005 as far as revenue."
Meanwhile, 2011 brings the end of federal stimulus funding and an enhanced federal contribution to Medicaid, which the state used to fill a gaping hole in its budget over the past two years.
Without these things and the reserves it has now depleted, Georgia's government would face a nearly $2 billion shortfall. Even with current revenue growth and already planned cuts, the gap would still be $1 billion to $1.3 billion for fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1, 2011. So the Legislature will be considering possible cuts in the amended 2011 budget before taking up the 2012 budget.
"Every dollar they can save and or pull and place in the treasury to increase our reserve helps with the problems we're going to have in '12, so there's some feeling to cut every dollar that you can in '11 even if you don't need it in that budget," Hill said.
While the state technically still has a reserve of about $200 million, Hill notes that this would last only a few days at current spending levels.
A further cut of at least 2 percent in K-12 education funding appears almost certain, with a 4 percent cut possible, Hill said, adding, "Nobody knows until we see what the governor proposes."
Lawmakers don't want to cut school funding, but the state has exhausted the "low-hanging fruit" with departmental budget cuts, Parrish said. He noted that education amounts to more than 50 percent of the state budget, while the smallest 35 of the state's approximately 50 agencies barely make up 5 percent.
"Education is certainly critical, and we're just doing everything we can to make sure we treat education fairly and that the cuts are just the bare minimum," said Burns.
Lottery-funded programs will be another education-related concern this session.
At the beginning of 2010, the Georgia Lottery had amassed a $900 million reserve. But the pre-kindergarten and HOPE programs it funds had begun to run a deficit, now eating away at that reserve at a rate of about $200 million per year.
"We've got to make sure that HOPE is sustainable, that how we administer it and what folks can expect from it makes common sense," Burns said.
The HOPE program includes both grade-based scholarships for students at university system institutions and wide-open grants that pay tuition for any Georgia residents who attend the state's technical colleges. Possible changes that have been suggested include capping the programs so that they pay less than 100 percent of tuition or increasing the grade point average required for the merit-based scholarship.
The two local representatives said they will be listening to all possibilities.
Senator Hill said he will resist capping HOPE scholarships. But he likes the idea of establishing a needs test for the technical school HOPE grants, so that students who can afford to pay part or all of their own way will do so, leaving more money for those who can't afford it.
Hill also thinks that the Georgia Lottery Commission should return more of its gross revenue to the state.
"One of my complaints is that the Lottery Commission is only giving the state 24 percent of proceeds towards education," he said. "That's about 5 percent lower than the national average. Most lotteries around the country, including some that are about our size, return about 30 percent."
All three area lawmakers linked protecting HOPE to the idea of job creation. What else the state government can do to spur job growth remains uncertain.
Burns thinks the Legislature should take a fresh look an existing tax incentive program for job creation that ranks counties according to tiers.
"We need to offer some assistance to a county that is in need, but we need to somehow make that fair, because as we all know, a job in Bulloch County benefits Effingham and benefits Screven and Jenkins," he said. "This prison in Jenkins County is going to create employment for folks in Bulloch County. We're all in this together."
Hill expects that the new governor will use the budget or legislation to put more money into programs that help provide roads and other infrastructure for industrial development.
"We need to be sure that we're competing with other states for industry, and we don't need to lose a one," Hill said.
Job creation and the effects of budget cuts remain the overriding concern of constituents, these three lawmakers agreed. But that doesn't mean that other local concerns won't have their attention.
The delegation will be working to secure the additional funds to build the new biology building at Georgia Southern, Hill said. Since $15 million was allocated for this project last year, about $20 million more was needed.
"We're giving it top priority as far as the local delegation is concerned," Hill said.
The regular session that begins Monday is unlikely to be the last of 2011. Since results of the 10-year census were released in December, a special session on redistricting is expected this fall. Although Georgia gained one seat in Congress, it will go to the northern part of the state. Population growth here lagged behind metro Atlanta, so South Georgia will lose seats in the state Legislature.
"Unfortunately, down in our area, and probably from I-20 south, we will be losing some seats, probably five or six House seats, maybe a couple of state Senate seats. All of those population growth numbers will be benefiting Atlanta northwards," Parrish said.