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Lawmakers brace citizens for budget cuts
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State Sen. Jack Hill shows the downward trend in state revenues. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Jon Burns

State Rep. Jon Burns discusses transportation, among other issues.

Buddy Carter

State Rep. Buddy Carter talks about what lies ahead for the General Assembly.

Jack Hill

State. Sen. Jack Hill discusses the budget and his outlook.

Effingham County’s legislative delegation let the people know the cuts to the state budget that are upcoming may be done with an axe and not a scalpel.

“We’re probably going to see an increase in the budget cuts in the year we’re in right now, just to finish out the year,” state Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) told the Effingham Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues crowd. “And 2010 is going to be a real challenge.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a $21.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2009 in May. But expected revenues, already conservatively estimated, haven’t kept pace.

“We’re 2 percent behind last year and the budget we’re operating on is on 1 percent behind,” said Hill, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

State agencies already have been forced to make some cuts and more reduction in spending is likely. The question is how deep those cuts will be.

“We’re going to have to cut and it’s going to hurt,” state Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) said. “It’s going to be tough.”

Added state Rep. Jon Burns: “We’re going to have to make some tough cuts and some tough calls when we go back in January.”

Yet Hill sounded an optimistic tone about how long the state’s crunch may last.

“There are a lot of positives in our part of the state,” he said. “We’ve got the potential to replace jobs that are lost, and that’s not something that every part of the country has.”

Though traffic at the Savannah port terminals is down, the port remains busy, and Hill and the other lawmakers noted the work of the Effingham Industrial Development Authority, particularly in landing Portuguese manufacturer EFACEC.

“We may have nine months or a year of some pretty tough times,” Hill said. “You may see some pretty Draconian things in budgets over the next year. In a year from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘we survived it and it was tough, but things are pointing ahead.’”

Burns also called on Effingham citizens to let the lawmakers know how potential budget cuts would affect them and those they know.

“Sometimes in politics, that real world is lost a bit,” he said.

The Effingham sheriff’s department received $11,000 in local assistance grants for in-car computers, and the Effingham Fairgrounds received $10,000 for improvements to the bleachers. Guyton received a $10,000 grant to renovate the old gym and $2,500 for public safety.

Local assistance grants make up about $6 million of the state’s budget.

“The local assistance grants, fairly or unfairly, right or wrong, are viewed as carrots for the legislators,” Carter said. “This was just an easy target initially when the governor was looking at cutting the budget. That’s not to say they are not valid projects; they are, and they are needed projects.”

Hill said he was hopeful the funds for the local assistance grants can be released in the coming months.

“Several recipients spent funds on those assumptions,” he said.

Said Burns: “I still feel a commitment to our local community for those grants. The ones we worked with are worthwhile and they serve a good and legitimate purpose. We need to honor the commitments we made from the state during these tough periods.”

Gov. Perdue since has called to halt the homeowners tax relief grant, a $428 million rebate.

Transportation
Everything is on the table when it comes to transportation funding solutions, Burns said, from hot lanes to toll roads to private-public partnerships — and even a regional one-cent sales tax to pay for local and area projects.

Burns said he would support any sensible measure to improve the state’s transportation network. He also said the regional sales tax, that nearly passed the General Assembly two years ago, will receive serious consideration again in the upcoming session.

“It will probably take a constitutional amendment to vote on this,” Carter said of the T-SPLOST.

If approved, the counties that align themselves into a regional sales tax would be able to vote on the projects.

“We’re going to have to work with Chatham County to address some of our concerns,” Carter said.

Added Hill: “I think our future lies in working with Chatham County.”

Hill offered a caution on any statewide transportation measures. He pointed out that the state transportation board has a member for every Congressional district in Georgia, but that means there are only three board members from south of Macon.

Hill has opposed a statewide transportation tax because of his fears that the southern part of the state may not get its fair share in return. However, he does support a regional transportation sales tax, as long as counties have an opt-in and opt-out clause. Hill said he believes the measure will get passed by the House and Senate early in the session.

Education
The lawmakers differed on the issue of school vouchers. Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) has offered a measure that would allow students from a school system not making the grade to go to schools in another county. Burns does not support vouchers to cross county lines and lamented what he called an uneven playing field for private and public schools when it comes to No Child Left Behind standards. But he does back charter schools.

“I think that’s the direction we should flow now,” he said.

He also called for greater parental involvement in education and in students’ lives. Burns cited the documentary “2 Million Minutes” that chronicled education in the U.S., India and China.

“It was interesting and scary,” he said. “Some of our best and brightest are being left behind. There is absolutely no substitute for parental involvement. Until we get that back, it’s going to be tough to get that kind of achievement in our schools or anything.”

Carter, who said that during his tenure as Pooler mayor he hated Effingham because its school system lured families away from his city, supports school vouchers.

“The more competitive we can make our schools, the better off we’ll be,” he said.

But he also worried that students from underperforming schools could drag down another school system.

“This is going to be a tough one for me,” he said of Johnson’s proposal. “I don’t know if I would support having students in one county go to school in another county.”

Hill voted against Johnson’s measure last year and is opposed to having local control of schools usurped.

“If there’s a place for vouchers, it’s urban areas that are in trouble,” he said.

Hill used Clayton County’s school system, which lost its accreditation, as an example.

“There was a great hue and cry from those counties not interested at all in increasing their facilities” for the influx of Clayton students, he said.

Carter also hopes the coming General Assembly session will revisit the state’s trauma care network.

“If you’re involved in a traumatic accident, there’s a 20 percent greater chance you will die because we don’t have a trauma system in place,” he said.

The current budget included funding for a trauma care network and that money will remain, Carter said. But he is dismayed a dedicated revenue stream was not identified for trauma care.