Originally created 01/19/00

Lawmakers criticize reef program cuts



ATLANTA -- Several Coastal Georgia lawmakers Tuesday questioned a plan to cut all state funding for artificial reefs from Gov. Roy Barnes' proposed 2001 budget, eliminating what the state's top environmental official conceded has been a popular program.

"You say this has brought in money," Rep. Anne Mueller, R-Savannah, told Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice Barrett. "Why are you cutting reefs?"

During Tuesday's legislative hearing on his department's budget request, Mr. Barrett also asked members of the House and Senate appropriations committees to support Mr. Barnes' recommendation to provide $30 million in grants to help local governments preserve undeveloped land as green space. He also pushed a proposal for $2.2 million to beef up the staff of the department's Environmental Protection Division.

Mr. Barrett told lawmakers the department had asked for $260,000 to build an additional five to seven artificial reefs off the Georgia coastline for fishing enthusiasts and six to eight of the structures along the shoreline. The DNR already operates 18 artificial reefs from 5 miles to 55 miles off the coast and 16 that are closer to shore, he said.

Thus far, the program has been responsible for $450 million in boat sales and has generated $18 million in tax revenues, he said.

"It's been a good, popular program with broad support," Mr. Barrett said.

But the commissioner said several years of budget cutting forced the department to set priorities, and cutting the reefs program was preferable to reducing staff or closing facilities. However, he said he hopes the cut will be for just one year and that the funding can be restored in 2002.

"I see this as being a temporary holding pattern," Mr. Barrett said. "I think we need to continue this program."

"I understand you've got to do what you've got to do," responded Rep. Terry Barnard, R-Glennville. "(But) this is obviously very important to the coast. Keep it in mind."

Mr. Barrett and EPD Director Harold Reheis defended his division's need for 60 new positions, 40 of which would be dedicated to improving the state's water quality, which they say increasingly is threatened by rapid growth.

"We've become a very large state," Mr. Reheis said. "We've got some very significant unmet needs."

Mr. Barrett said the additional staff would help put Georgia, which now ranks last in the Southeast in environmental-protection employees per 1 million residents, more on a par with neighboring states.

The commissioner didn't have details of Mr. Barnes' green-space preservation plan, other than to reiterate that participation in the program will be voluntary.

In brief

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a Republican, complained Tuesday that Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes' budget recommendations would cripple his department. Without more money for personnel, mileage reimbursement and computers, Mr. Oxendine said he was not sure how the department would be able to function.

Seven candidates qualified Tuesday for a special election to fill the seat of former state Sen. Sam Roberts, who died of cancer earlier this month.

Sales of goods over the Internet -- often untaxed -- haven't taken a major bite out of the state's tax collections, the state revenue commissioner said Tuesday.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.