Ringing in the New Year in Georgia means that it's time for the state legislature to resume their work under the gold dome of the Capitol building in Atlanta. Coming off a resounding victory in the general election, Georgia's GOP will have practically unassailable majorities in both houses, particularly after a number of Democrat defectors joined their ranks over the past few weeks.
While there's no shortage of issues they could tackle, the odds favor state budget cuts (including further reductions to education spending), immigration reform, tax reform and, following the announcement of census results in December, congressional re-districting. Because of population growth, the state of Georgia will send an additional congressman to Washington in 2012, but first a new district must be created.
As state politicians yawn and stretch following their post-election hibernation, here are a few things to watch for from the General Assembly in the coming weeks:
The big Deal
The 2011 legislative session begins January 10, and will be kicked off with the inauguration of Georgia's 82nd Governor, Nathan Deal.
The inauguration ceremony takes place on the steps of the Capitol building Monday afternoon at 2 p.m. and is open to the public. It's followed by an invitation-only, celebration at Philips Arena. While black-tie attire for the event is optional, political clout and deep pockets are not.
Prior to officially taking his seat behind the Governor's desk, Deal is encouraging a day of community service on January 8. Called "With a Servant's Heart," Georgia's Chief Executive has partnered with 27 organizations around the state, including environmental groups, food banks and local Habitat for Humanity offices, and is asking volunteers to serve in their communities. In Savannah, volunteers are encouraged to assist the Second Harvest Food Bank.
Having already discussed the need for cuts to the government workforce and education spending at a meeting of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce in mid-December, Deal is likely preparing Georgians for the immanent day when residents can expect even less from the state in the way of safety nets or social programs.
For more info on the governor's inauguration and the day of service, visit www.dealinaugural.com
The state's Special Council on Tax Reform (SCTR) spent the latter half of 2010 combing through Georgia's tax code looking for ways to make the system more stable, more business friendly and fairer to all.
The council was mandated to present their recommendations by January 10 for review by the Speaker of the House and Lieutenant Governor. If the SCTR's plan is found to be viable, it will be drafted into legislation that will receive an up or down vote.
The final meeting of the SCTR was scheduled for January 5, so the process is down to the wire, but documents from December meetings shine a little light on what's to be expected.
During a presentation to the Biennial Institute for Georgia Legislators in mid-December, SCTR chair A.D. Frazier pointed out that nearly 83 percent of the state revenue is generated by personal income tax (48 percent) and sales and use tax (34.7 percent). The solution laid out in the presentation is to reduce income taxes for people and corporations, replacing them with consumption based taxes, particularly on items that reflect personal choices and discretionary spending.
While Nathan Deal has voiced interest in reducing the corporate income tax, according to Frazier's presentation, corporate income tax currently totals $602 million, or four percent of state revenue.
According to the Tax Foundation's 2011 State Business Tax Climate Index, Georgia is sitting in the middle of the road, ranked number 25 in the nation for business friendliness based solely on considerations of taxes.
The SCTR's recommendations, if enacted as legislation, have the potential to drastically alter Georgia's tax system. Expectations of tax reform improving things for the lower income citizens should be tempered however.
According to the group's meeting minutes from December 1, during a vote to revise and adopt language for the guiding principles of reform efforts, the following sentence was removed before approval was given: "The tax burden should be equitable (meaning that tax burdens vary by ability to pay, which is called vertical equity) and fair (meaning that equals are treated the same, which is called horizontal equity) in its impact on all Georgians."
For more information on the Special Tax Reform Council, visit fiscalresearch.gsu.edu/taxcouncil
A look into the future
Over the course of the 2011 legislative session thousands of bills and resolutions will be drafted and discussed by both houses of general assembly.
A few ambitious elected officials have already gotten to work pre-filing potential legislation, and the dominant Republican presence - focusing on budgeting, illegal immigration and a mix of conservative bread and butter social issues - is clear.
The state Senate has three bills and a resolution awaiting their consideration, including the "Georgia Government Accountability Act," which creates a subcommittee tasked with reviewing the productivity and efficiency of state agencies; and the "Georgia Public Works and Contractor Protection Act," which would require all state contractors to sign an affidavit verifying the employment eligibility (read "citizenship") of all employees and subcontractors.
The state House has significantly more work waiting for it on the first day, including 31 bills and 10 resolutions. The bulk of that was submitted in mid-November by Representative Bobby Franklin of the 43rd District who pre-filed 21 bills and 8 resolutions.
Amongst the issues tackled by Franklin: A law making pre-natal murder unlawful, a pre-emption of local ordinances prohibiting the right to grow vegetables or raise small animals as a personal (non-commercial) food source, a repeal of mandatory vaccinations, and a repeal of the Governor's authority to limit the sale or transport of firearms during times of emergency.
Pre-files by other state representatives include a resolution to create a Joint Teen Violence Study Committee and a legislated limitation on the total increase allowed per year in the assessed value of property for tax purposes.
For more information on the Georgia General Assembly, visit www.legis.ga.gov