Midstate lawmakers keeping an eye on federal and state dollars

mlee@macon.comJanuary 5, 2013 

ATLANTA -- When a new state Legislature convenes Jan. 14, legislators’ eyes will not only be on lawmakers in Washington but also on tax revenues in Georgia.

In this session, state lawmakers will try to shore up health care, the state’s business environment and its military bases.

“We’re finding out now, with midnight votes in Washington, what the effect of all that is going to be,” said House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, speaking days after Congress’ vote to delay the major spending cuts and tax increases that form the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

“So much of what we budget are federal funds that flow through the state, especially in the health care arena,” he said.

Georgia will raise about $19 billion for its budget for the year ending in June 2013. Roughly $11 billion in additional money will come from the federal government to the state of Georgia, much of it contingent on matching state funds.

“You’re looking at at least eight, $900 million that we know we’re going to have to find” for Georgia’s balance sheet, predicted state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, to cover enrollment growth at universities, fund the state employees’ retirement system and pay the state’s share of Medicaid, which is health insurance for low-income residents.

By law, Georgia must balance its budget every year.

Gov. Nathan Deal already has asked most state agencies to submit budget cuts between 3 percent and 5 percent for the remaining six months of this fiscal year and next year. His draft budget will be published soon after the legislative session starts.

By that time, the public will know if Georgia’s December tax revenue was as poor as the November 2012 collections, which were smaller than the same time last year. It’s not clear if Congress will have settled the country’s borrowing-limit issue, or any major bargains on tax cuts or spending by then.

“A lot of what we’re going to do is react to the effects of the (federal) Affordable Care Act,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.

Georgia will turn down billions in federal dollars for 10 years of majority funding of an expanded Medicaid offered under the act. According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, about 650,000 more low-income Georgians could get insurance under expanded Medicaid, and it would draw down nearly $8 billion in federal funds in its first three years.

But “eventually that bill goes to the state, and it’s a huge number,” said Peake, praising Deal’s decision to forego the Medicaid expansion.

State Rep. Buddy Harden, R-Cordele, agreed and instead called for money-saving “teamwork” among hospitals, caregivers and patients.

“We’ve got to improve personal responsibility. ... Stop doing things that make you sick,” he said.

But state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said “Medicaid is a social issue.”

Lucas, who is black, said he believes race is involved in the Medicaid decisions, which are made by the nearly all-white GOP.

“The majority of people on Medicaid are white, not black. People would like to say that it’s black folks. ... That’s just not the case.”

The Legislature may not have the appetite to tackle major tax changes this year, as it’s still digesting the impact of cutting and shifting energy and car tag taxes last year, as well as cuts to the HOPE Scholarship.

But Peake will propose at least one tax item: the so-called Renaissance Act. It would set aside up to $30 million annually in tax incentives for renovations and improvements in cities’ downtown districts.

In lean times, it will be a “hard sell to prove that these taxes do provide jobs, do provide more revenue, do put people to work,” Peake admitted.

The act would help create 2,200 jobs annually, according to the Georgia Municipal Association, a statewide lobby for cities and a supporter of the bill.

But Georgia does not do a good job tracking the effectiveness of things like the Renaissance Act, Lucas said.

“We’ve got to stay on top of it and make sure those folks who get the tax breaks bring the jobs, too,” he said.

Robins Air Force Base

There also will be an initiative to speed veterans into the civilian work force, said O’Neal, proposing the construction of what he called a “gateway center” that he wants near Warner Robins.

“It will deal with virtually all the needs of active duty military, including folks who are separating from the military,” O’Neal said. The center would help veterans find civilian work and formally translate their military experience into civilian credentials.

Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come home with top-shelf skills in anything from airplane mechanics to emergency medical response, but the lack of diplomas or state certifications keep them from jobs.

O’Neal said such a facility also would show the federal government, as well as the much-feared Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission that has the power to recommend closing bases, that Georgia is committed to veterans’ welfare.

“Sequestration, frankly, is under way,” said O’Neal, referring to the federal fiscal cliff spending cuts. And the biggest unknown is how that would affect Robins Air Force Base, he said.

Macon-Bibb consolidation

Bibb County and Macon voters approved a plan to combine their governments last year, but this year, amendments to the plan are coming.

Some are broadly agreed tweaks that have come out of the consolidation task force, such as changing the fiscal year, said the task force’s co-chairwoman, state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon.

But a GOP move to make consolidated government elections nonpartisan, instead of partisan, isn’t broadly agreed upon.

“I think it’s bad timing. I think it should be considered disrespect to a community that just voted for a huge measure that included partisan elections,” Randall said. “I think it says to the citizens in Bibb: ‘We wanted you all to vote for this measure, but we’re going to change it out, we’re going to change the game.’ ”

Peake said Bibb’s Democrat legislators “knew this was an important issue to (GOP legislators,) and we were very clear we will leave it off the charter vote but we will in the near future address this again. We maybe addressed it a little sooner than everybody thought.”

If all five of Bibb’s Republican legislators, a new majority, agree, its passage seems clear.

But Lucas has vowed to fight, saying that House parliamentary rules may not allow the proposal as it will come from the Senate.

“I don’t know if it’s a done deal. We will see,” he said.

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