By Sen. John Albers
ROSWELL (January 31, 2011) – Following a week of treacherous ice that shut down most of Metro Atlanta, the legislature returned in full swing to begin examining the issues critical to the future of our state. Since the nation began its journey to economic recovery a year and half ago, growth has been slow and Georgia’s unemployment rate remains above the national average. This session, our focus will be on creating an economic climate that encourages job growth and retention.
One of the most important tools to putting Georgia on a path to economic success is to balance the state budget. This is the legislature’s sole constitutional responsibility and ensures that we do not spend more than we take in, unlike the federal government that has run up trillions of dollars in debt. Georgia faces an almost $2 billion budget hole, which will require us to make difficult cuts to important areas of state government. Governor Nathan Deal has recommended that the state operate on an $18.2 billion budget for the remainder of the 2011 Fiscal Year. This latest budget reduction means the state would be spending $3.6 billion less than in 2009. Our priority is to ensure that government lives within its means, while protecting core state programs and services.
This session we’re also putting emphasis on strengthening local control across the state. Citizens have told their elected officials that they want less government and more control over their tax dollars. Legislation has been introduced that responds to that request, by seeking to allow citizens to vote on re-creating Milton County. North Fulton residents have said loud and clear that they want more influence over how their county operates and where their money is spent. I’ve worked with a number of my colleagues to introduce a constitutional amendment that asks voters statewide to approve the re-creation of a previously existing county. If the legislation passes and is approved by voters, it will pave the way for a local referendum on re-creating Milton County. In the last few years, legislators have tried to get this measure passed. The North Fulton delegation is committed to educating our fellow legislators on the importance of this issue and seeing it reach final passage this year.
Another high profile topic we’ll focus on this session is preserving the HOPE scholarship. This program is one of the greatest tools that have advanced Georgia’s higher education system. It puts students one step closer to achieving their academic goals, and has had a huge impact on our economy, families and communities. If we do nothing to stabilize HOPE’s budget, the program will not be able to fund its obligations by 2013. HOPE is facing such a severe financial crisis as a result of an economic climate not seen in generations. The combination of student enrollment growth and tuition increases has outpaced revenues. Between 2000 and 2011, student enrollment nearly doubled as more people have enrolled in college due to the economy, while colleges have had to raise tuition amid the recession. Maintaining this program is crucial not just for our students, but for our state to develop an educated workforce and attract new businesses.
Moving forward, lawmakers will continue to hash out details on the budget. The Senate voted unanimously to override former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s veto of the zero-based budgeting bill, which would require the legislature to justify all of its expenses. The Senate has passed a version of zero based budgeting four times in the last eight years, and the bill enjoys strong bipartisan support. Gov. Perdue said he vetoed the measure because it infringes on the executive powers of the governor, but it’s important to remember that tax dollars belong to the citizens. If we are to be good stewards of their hard-earned money, we must analyze and justify how every dollar is spent.
I look forward to working with my colleagues on these and other important issues as we move through session. I’ll also continue developing an open dialogue with my constituents to ensure I’m representing their best interests.