Officials reflect on session

The members of Columbia County's legislative delegation congratulated one another Thursday for surviving a session of the state Legislature that one member called the toughest he has ever experienced.

 

Speaking at the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Post Legislative Breakfast, state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, admitted the meeting was "turning into a love-fest" as lawmakers took turns at the podium praising their colleagues.

But that camaraderie was essential in working through the recent session, which required lawmakers to hack $2.6 billion out of the budget, said Mr. Harbin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"In my 15 years we've seen tough times," Mr. Harbin said, "but we've never seen times like this."

Balancing the state's budget at $18.6 billion, said state Rep. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, was akin to a surgeon excising "fat and some of the lean without killing the patient."

Ultimately, the task required using a combination of one-time spending cuts, federal stimulus money and $1.6 billion from the state's reserve fund.

The job might not be over yet, Mr. Harbin said.

The Legislature might be forced to call a special session to make even more cuts.

About $500 million more might be needed from the state reserve to balance a shortfall in the current budget, and even more might be required to bolster school systems during the midyear adjustment, Mr. Harbin said.

At the start of the 2010 legislative session, Mr. Harbin said, the reserve fund could be as low as $50 million.

Dwindling tax revenues created the budget crisis, Mr. Harbin said.

Tax revenues have been in near free-fall since December, when receipts were down 8 percent compared with the previous year, he said. Revenues fell 14.3 percent in January, 34.8 percent in February and 14.5 percent in March, he added.

Recently, the state announced that April revenues fell 20.6 percent compared with April 2008 figures, Mr. Harbin said.

"We've had a difficult time, and we have a difficult time in front of us," he said.

Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.