State legislation gets slow start to challenge-laden session
by Matt Shinall
Jan 17, 2011 | 1755 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Winter weather put a damper on inauguration services last week at the state Capitol as legislation officially got underway. The real work will begin next week when legislators return.

Two local legislators responded for comment on how the snow and ice affected their first week back in session as well as what challenges and opportunities lie ahead.

"It was the most unusual first day of session I've ever experienced," said State Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville. "We were in Atlanta but still getting around was treacherous. ... It was very interesting. Usually the first day is full of excitement with people wall to wall inside the Capitol especially on an inauguration day but it was like a ghost town. There was hardly anyone at the Capitol.

"It was very different, almost solemn."

Gov. Nathan Deal's inauguration ceremony was moved indoors while the inaugural ball was canceled all together. Deal even urged residents to stay at home rather than attend his State of the State address Wednesday.

"None of the departments were open. It was strictly for the benefit of doing constitutionally what we're supposed to do and that is getting everyone sworn in and then the governor giving the State of the State," said State Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville. "I'm glad they decided to call things off today and tomorrow, that'll save us some days for the end of the session which we will desperately need. ... We'll go back on the 24th and we'll go back to getting down to the task of doing business."

New business will will see a number of challenges for law makers to overcome as they work on immigration, restructuring the tax code, reapportioning congressional districts and tackling the budget.

The tax code proposal includes several key factors which will be hotly debated including food tax and casual sales tax. Battles added though that a possible 2 percent reduction in state income tax has also been thrown around.

As a former educator and an advocate for education funding, Battles looks to help fledgling programs like the HOPE Grant. He served last year on the Education Committee but the House has yet to receive this year's committee assignments.

"We are in desperate need of dealing with the HOPE Grant because we're already in our reserves and within the next four years we will have completely depleted our reserves for the HOPE Grant so we have to do something to address that and make sure that it's available for quite a few years," Battles said.

Loudermilk, a veteran within the state Capitol, landed on new ground this year as a State Senator. The transition has been smooth as he and other law makers get used to a new administration. His first year in the Senate has found him as Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, Vice-Chair of Veterans, Defense and Homeland Security and member of both Transportation and Economic Development committees.

"It's just a new set of rules and a new way of doing things. Of course, being a Chairman adds a little more responsibility and a little more time commitment, Chairing the Science and Technology Committee. But there's a lot we have a great opportunity to do especially with a new governor and new administration -- it's going to take everyone a little while to learn the new people that are in the new roles and establish new relationships. There's a lot of activity that will go on just getting to know the new people," Loudermilk said. "I think we'll be looking heavily at education with the new State School Superintendent John Barge, he's got a lot of good ideas and he has a good working relationship with the legislature already."

The biggest item on the docket in Loudermilk's view will be balancing the budget as the state is constitutionally bound to do.

"The budget is going to top the list because of the $1 billion hole that we're going to have because of not having the stimulus money that we had last year but I've gained a lot of confidence with Gov. Deal," Loudermilk said. "He's got some good ideas of how we're going to meet that. Fortunately, we're starting to see revenues starting to rise, but it's going to be a long time before they're back to where they were. It may even be 10 years before they're back to where they were."

Balancing the budget will take more effort than typical, suggested Loudermilk. He sees the budget as an opportunity to transform the state government and restructure the way it operates. The government, Loudermilk said, has overstep its bounds taking on more responsibility and more risk than necessary. He mentioned specific items such as state operated golf courses and hotels, including the former Lodge at Red Top Mountain State Park.

"These were nice things for government to do. But does it really make sense for government to be doing it? And that's really what the people are telling us," Loudermilk said. "Once we get through with the cuts, we're going to have a very efficient government ... but we need to put things in place to keep government from getting bloated like it was before."