We saw most of the top lawmakers in the state who have major policy initiatives, and hosted a lunch that had almost any local legislator or lobbyist with an Athens connection attend. A few takeaways:
- The legislators are nervous. Most claim there isn't much fat to be cut from the budget, and there is squabbling over where the $2+ billion revenue shortfall will come from.
- The legislature continues to want to control the revenue that goes to local governments in some form or fashion. Several referenced a fact about how fast local governments were growing and the need to rein them in. The reality is that it is much easier for voters to kick us local officials out of office than it is to unseat a state legislator. Most also claim they want to save the property tax exemption that has been hotly debated; I'd just assume they go ahead and let it go at this point. It was bad policy to begin with, and it won't be back next year, that's for sure.
- One legislator even said he expected Georgia to be at 10% unemployment before the session is complete.
- There is a lot of uncertainty around transportation, and everyone is still waiting to see just what Rep. Vance Smith and Gov. Perdue will propose. This will impact our area greatly -- the proposed TSPLOST legislation is much more well suited to Atlanta than an area like ours, which doesn't have an effective regional transportation governance body. Our region would likely benefit greatly from a more simple statewide sales tax, if GDOT or another agency can utilize the funds efficiently. One point that resonates with me -- GDOT should worry less about cutting staff and more about executing projects at this point.
- Among those I spoke with, there seemed to be universal respect for UGA and its impact around the state, especially research funding and capital projects.
- The crisis has forced everyone to work together more closely. The senate, house and governor's office seem to be pulling in the same direction on many issues and limiting the bickering that has been typical of the past few years. That said, based on some side conversations with members of our group, it is obvious that the stripes haven't changed on a few cats.
- Sen. David Shafer (a candidate for Lt. Governor) and Rep. Jerry Keen (who has been rumored to aspire to higher office) offered startlingly different reviews on whether Georgians are getting more or less value from government than they were 10 years ago. Shafer claims Georgia's population has grown from 6 million to 8 million while its budget has doubled. Rep. Keen claimed that the per capita numbers have been consistent. It is obvious Sen. Shafer is going to make cutting government spending a big part of his campaign. Seems like these numbers would be easy to find.
- Everyone wants to avoid a potentially nuclear war over a proposed 1.6% tax on health care system revenue. The Governor's position is that the feds have forced him to do this, but legislators aren't buying it. I can see why. Obviously, this bill will result in job cuts or be passed through to consumers or employers. And legislators understand that picking a fight with your healthcare institutions and their powerful boards is the last thing you need in an already complicated year.
- We also heard from Secretary of State Karen Handel on election policy, Rep. Keith Heard, Rep. Bob Smith, Senator Bill Cowsert, and many others who gave generously of their time. Many thanks to all.