Originally created 01/12/04

Assembly to face budget request, HOPE study



ATLANTA - There won't be a contest for speaker of the House when the General Assembly is gaveled into session today.

Nor will there be any jockeying for plum committee assignments.

Those volatile political decisions to carry the Legislature through the 2003-04 term were made last year, which makes Opening Day 2004 likely to be low-key by comparison.

After renewing acquaintances with colleagues they haven't seen since spring, lawmakers won't have much to do until midweek.

On Wednesday night, the House and Senate will hold a joint session to hear Gov. Sonny Perdue present his 2005 budget request. In an unusual move, the Republican governor will fold the annual State of the State message into the budget speech.

Historically, governors have unveiled their spending proposals during the first week of the session, then waited until later in January to deliver the State of the State.

It's an understandable decision on Mr. Perdue's part, given that Georgia's budget crunch is the biggest challenge facing the state this year. Two straight years of declining tax collections only began to give way last fall to sluggish growth, leaving the state treasury far short of the revenue expectations the governor had built into the budget the Legislature passed in April.

In fact, the midyear budget adjustment Mr. Perdue proposed last week lowers the 2004 revenue forecast by $552 million, to $14.6 billion.

As the revenue picture worsened in the summer, Mr. Perdue ordered state agency leaders to cut their spending during the current fiscal year by 2.5 percent and to incorporate 5 percent reductions into their 2005 budgets.

The early indication is that legislative budget writers will have a much easier time swallowing those midyear cuts than the larger reductions they will see in Mr. Perdue's 2005 spending plan.

"What we are seeing in this midyear budget is no big surprise," said Rep. Tom Buck, D-Columbus, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I hope we can move on it quickly. ... The big work's going to have to be on '05."

Sen. Jack Hill, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that the midyear budget also has been eased by an influx of $488 million in federal aid - including $210 million to help the state cope with the rising costs of Medicaid.

"We would have had some very painful cuts otherwise," said Mr. Hill, R-Reidsville.

But that federal money was a one-time offer - part of a tax-cut bill Congress passed in the spring - so it won't be available in 2005.

With the state only beginning to recover from the recession, Mr. Perdue told lawmakers last week that setting spending priorities will be even more difficult than a year ago.

"We cut the fat last year," he said. "We've now reached the point of making tough budget choices between funding the good versus funding the also good."

Among the hardest of those choices for lawmakers will be the cuts in education the governor proposed in the midyear budget and those he will recommend for next year.

Sen. George Hooks, a former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said some of the lowest-paid school employees, cafeteria workers and bus drivers are due to see pay cuts.

At the same time, Mr. Perdue has said he will ask for a 2 percent raise next year for teachers.

"We're cutting the low-income folks," said Mr. Hooks, D-Americus. "These people are strapped."

Another education issue will surface this week in discussion about the future of the hugely popular HOPE scholarship. Today, Rep. Louise McBee, D-Athens, and Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Douglasville, will formally present the recommendations of a legislative study committee for preserving HOPE, which projections show could be running in the red by the 2008 school year.

The two lawmakers, who lead the House and Senate Higher Education committees, also headed the study panel.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor will outline his suggestions for the HOPE program.



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