ATLANTA -- Bibb County voters will get a look at their state lawmakers’ latest proposal for marrying Bibb and Macon governments any day now.
State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said she expects a bill to be filed during the first week of the state’s annual legislative session, which begins Monday.
“We’ve come to agreement on 97 percent of the bill,” said Randall, Bibb’s senior legislator.
The bill will propose to do away with Macon City Council and the Bibb County Commission, merging them into a countywide governing body with a yet-to-be-named number of members. Other city and county functions would also merge, on the model of places such as Athens-Clarke County and the Columbus Consolidated Government.
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Randall declined to discuss what’s in the remaining 3 percent. The entire delegation is keeping quiet until they agree among themselves.
Last year, two merger proposals stalled on several issues, including how many people to put on the governing body and if those should be nonpartisan offices. Nine or 11 members were on the table last year.
The bills also differed on term limits -- to have them or not. And there were other questions. Should officials hire a top cop to oversee public safety or use the elected county sheriff? Who will name members of boards and authorities, especially the well-regarded Macon Water Authority? And where to set a benchmark for overall cost savings?
A cost savings of 20 percent must be written into any new government charter, state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, insists. Barring an emergency, he wants the savings to be achieved in steps within five years.
“I don’t find a compelling argument for consolidation if in fact it is not going to save money,” he said.
Twenty percent is “feasible,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, the author of one of last year’s proposals.
The areas now in the city of Macon and unincorporated Bibb will probably each pay their own debts. That was fairly agreed last year. The governing body will probably have the power to set different property tax rates in the two districts, to reflect more services in the city.
The transition to merger could start as early as 2013.
But all that depends on Bibb County’s legislators agreeing on a charter, then selling it to at least half of voters in a countywide referendum, probably during the March primary or November 2012 general election.
Budget pain returns
The Legislature starts its budget writing this year about $1 billion in the red, according to the state Senate Research Office. That’s against annual state spending around $19 billion annually during the last few years.
The hole in the budget for the year ending in June 2013 is due to growing needs in Medicaid, demands for education and contributions to teacher and state retirement systems.
But House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, said, “I’ve got a sort of guarded optimism about what the December numbers will look like,” meaning sales figures and state tax revenue. “I think we’re going to grow our way out of some of that deficit.”
On the other side, Gov. Nathan Deal has asked most state agencies to draw up budget cuts of 2 percent, though the Senate report cautions that’s only worth about $130 million.
One particular midstate project is a high priority. A group of legislators is seeking somewhere between $7 million and $11 million in state dollars to help buy up properties in Robins Air Force Base’s so-called encroachment area. That’s about one-third of expected total cost of pleasing the Department of Defense by buying out residents who now live in the “crash zone” near the base’s runways.
The base is a massive employer, O’Neal emphasized. “My No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 up to a hundred priority is Robins Air Force Base,” he said.
O’Neal thinks a proposed state sales tax on groceries -- in addition to the local ones already in place -- won’t fly.
This is not the session for any radical changes to the tax code, he said, because from a timing standpoint, that could interrupt economic recovery. But there’s also a pro-business push to eliminate a tax on the energy used in manufacturing sooner rather than later, which may happen this year.
There’s a general GOP move to shift Georgia’s tax base to rest less on income and more on consumption, on the recommendation of a business-heavy, blue-ribbon panel that released a comprehensive study of the state’s tax structure in 2011.
“I think they (consumption taxes) are fairer,” said Staton, pointing out that sales taxes are paid by everyone, including illegal residents and people driving through the state.
Legislators will also start seeing bills that respond to small business concerns about onerous or burdensome regulation. The House Special Committee on Small Business Development and Job Creation -- O’Neal called it a sort of think tank -- will start interviewing business representatives to figure out how to streamline their dealings with the state.
But maybe growth can’t do it all. Randall said it’s inescapable: “Ultimately, we’ve got to find a way to increase our revenue.”
Georgia could do a better job collecting taxes already owed, she said. And there is not much room for more cuts, she insisted.
“I think a lot of these (state) agencies are already at bare bones. We can’t sacrifice public safety and we certainly can’t sacrifice more education.”
River Edge Behavioral Health Center, for example, is expecting some cuts, she said. “That, to me, turns into a public safety issue. I hope there will be some reconsideration.”
And taxes are increasing in Bibb County already. Voters just passed an extra penny of sales tax on the dollar -- from 6 cents to 7 cents -- to help pay for projects totaling $190 million. Later this year, Georgia voters will be asked for another such bump to fund major transportation initiatives.
Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, suggested that’s enough consumption tax. “The philosophy for me is, you don’t necessarily want to tax people who don’t have a significant amount of money,” he said. “They’re taxed at a higher rate because of the proportion (spent on taxes) to the amount of money they have.”
He proposes his own business jump-start in the form of a bigger tax break for companies that create a certain number of jobs in poor, urban areas.
Such state tax breaks are the norm, but jobs in the poorest counties qualify for the most, up to $4,000 each. Bibb jobs do not earn that much because the county overall is not so poor. But part of Beverly’s district is. He wants to file a bill that would extend the maximum offer to specific poor, urban neighborhoods in relatively richer counties.
Midstate wish list
The state Department of Corrections alone will cost Georgia about $1 billion this fiscal year. It doesn’t have to, according to state Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, who spent the summer chairing the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.
“We’ve recommended that judges have more leeway in sentencing people” for nonviolent offenses, said Talton. Nonviolent offenders are part of what’s choking Georgia’s prisons-- a relic of “tough on crime” legislation fashionable a dozen and more years ago. His committee recommended options of alternative sentencing such as drug court and treatment rather than hard time. A bill is expected this year.
A land conservation tax break is inadvertently running Crawford and other rural counties into the poor house, according to state Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella. Georgia sends money to counties that lose property tax revenue when land is put into the 2006 Forest Land Protection Act and loses value. But Dickey says the funding formula does not adequately reimburse those counties.
Crawford’s had more than half its land put into the program. Wooded land over 200 acres is eligible. Dickey wants to see a tweak to the formula.
“In theory, it’s a good law but in practicality it’s unduly hurt some rural counties,” he said. “I don’t think it was intended to do that.”