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What lies ahead in 2009
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If the new year is here, can the Legislative session be far behind?

Not that anyone in the Legislature is looking forward to what will certainly be a session with little to celebrate.  But spring can’t arrive till the General Assembly concludes, so the sooner we get on with it the sooner spring will come and maybe we will reach the other side of the recession, which may be a “V” or “U.”  (“V” for a quick rebound, “U” for a longer bottom before the recovery.)

So, what are the issues that will define the 2009 session?

Overriding every issue will surely be the 2009 amended and the 2010 general budgets.  The reductions, HTRG, trauma and the stimulus bond package all will be key. A later column will address the scope of these issues and other budgetary projections.

This column will start the process of looking at issues sure to be debated in 2009 but with the caveat that there is always an issue that comes out of nowhere or out of current events or developments that winds up being front and center.
Some top issues for 2009
A bill for regions to finance transportation improvements with additional local sales taxes narrowly missed passing the Senate the last night of the 2008 session. So the Senate will be in a hurry to get something going on the issue. Logic might tell you this should happen quickly since everyone is for a transportation bill ... right? Look for the legislation to drag on a while.

Trauma funding
Technically a budget issue, but rises to a level beyond the budget process as policy makers will try to find a funding source for a trauma network in a year of scarce resources. An allocation for a trauma network is one of plums in the Governor’s Hospital and Insurance Industry fee proposal.

Banking reform
The Wall Street debacle has everyone thinking of closing the barn door to prevent more horses from escaping, if we have any more horses to lose. One effort would be to address the scams that are played out on unsuspecting homeowners about to lose their homes to foreclosure.The scam involves the fraudulent deeding of the home to a third party who then sells for a fraction of its value.

Also, underwriting abuses could be addressed including the registration of mortgage underwriters with no present oversight and requiring education for underwriters in national banks, small mortgage brokers and credit unions.
Property tax reform
Rising home and property values over the past few years along with local property tax reassessments reached a crescendo this past tax year and now with home values going down, local governments will be facing numerous challenges if they do not lower the values in advance. Out of this situation comes possibly an overwhelming move to limit assessment growth in the future to 3 percent or some inflationary measurement. The Senate bill passed last year but never taken up by the House, would have frozen values on non-residential property as well as residential.  This issue is sure to be intertwined with the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant issue and the decision as to its future regardless of whether it is funded in the current budget or not.
Department of Human Resources restructuring
The governor will promote a bill that will create a separate Department of Behavioral Health. Additionally, the Department of Public Health would move to the Department of Community Health. The main sticking points include whether the developmentally disabled should remain in the new Department of Human Services or be placed with the new Department of Behavioral Health. There is almost sure to be acrimony over the shifting of budgets to the new departments.
Local sales tax collection
There is a long simmering dispute between the Department of Revenue and local governments over the collection and disbursements of the local option sales taxes that are collected by the state.  Part of the cloud concerns the department’s inability or unwillingness to share individual business tax collection data. A Senate study committee looked at the issue over the summer and suggested Georgia look at what Alabama does — allow local governments to collect their own sales tax revenues. More to this issue than first appears — will chain businesses object to paying multiple governments in every county or community? Would require two sets of sales tax accounting for all businesses.
Super speeder fines
One of the governor’s original proposals to fund a trauma network was the assessment of an administrative fee independent of court fines for traffic offenses including speeding over 20 miles over the limit, exceeding 85 mph, DUI, racing and others. The speeding fee would be an additional $100 with the other more serious offenses like DUI being $300.  DMS would collect.

So the journey begins – certainly with less optimism than previous sessions and a subdued feeling about the immediate future.

Maybe this collective feeling will foster collaboration and teamwork, not intended to be a facetious statement.

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