As Georgia's state legislators gather in Atlanta tomorrow for the opening of the General Assembly, the main focus will be a $900 million surplus coupled with leaner economic times in 2001.
Gov. Roy Barnes wants to spend nearly half of the surplus for school classroom construction and fund the rest of his program with bonds. He also wants to roll $166 million of the surplus into the 2002 budget to expand Georgians' homestead exemption. And $25 million of surplus motor fuel taxes would go toward debt reduction.
Expanding the homestead exemption is attractive. But perhaps a better option is to freeze residential property tax assessments. The purpose would be to stop back-door tax increases like we've seen in Richmond, Columbia and other area counties. (The local tax assessor, for example, claims your property is worth twice what it was last year so your tax bill then becomes twice as much.)
A Republican bill would create an expandable homestead exemption. For as long as you own your home, your homestead exemption would increase by an amount necessary to offset the increased assessment. So, in effect, your assessment would never go up, and neither would your property taxes, unless the local county commission or school board raised the millage rate. Progressive Democrats ought to buy into this idea.
A second round of education proposals (as well as addressing problems created by last year's sweeping reform law) will also dominate the agenda. Some thoughts:
Georgia does not need any more educational bureaucracy.
Teachers' salaries should be raised more than last year's 3 percent, but so far the governor or anyone else hasn't come up with pay recommendations that effectively address a growing teacher shortage.
Funding for math, science and technology laboratories in grades nine through 12 were reduced last year - a serious lapse that demands redress this year.
The governor is also asking legislators for $200,000 from the surplus to upgrade the state's voting machinery - a welcomed request. Secretary of State Cathy Cox would like to test an electronic system in five cities (possibly Augusta) this fall. Fine. But a note of caution: Vendors are hawking many electronic systems that are just as problematic as punch card systems when it comes to accurate recounts. Cox needs to assure lawmakers that the system she recommends can survive Florida-type scrutiny.
There are many other issues, of course, that demand attention. Hundreds of bills will be filed in coming weeks and will require careful scrutiny.
In the meantime, area legislators continue to shore up their agendas. The Richmond County delegation, among other things, will be trying to secure funding ranging from $1.1 million for the new Fort Gordon Youth Challenge Academy to $18.9 million for Augusta State University classroom replacement. Heavy-lifting by influential legislators will also be required to secure funding for the Fort Discovery National Science Center and other worthy local projects.
Will Augusta's legislators try to tinker with the consolidation law, with an eye toward reform? Not likely. They're too skittish, and there's no consensus. The delegation will no doubt defer to a new city charter revision panel to come up with proposals. Then lawmakers could deal with them next year, if they find some backbone.