Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Georgia Senate, and House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, part of the top Republican leadership in the state House of Representatives, spoke to The Telegraph last week about the upcoming session. Both were asked the same questions, and an edited version of those interviews follows.
TELEGRAPH: What do you predict about the pace of the session this year?
CAGLE: It’s my preference that it move pretty fast. It’s my desire to get in and take care of our budgetary concerns and not delay the process. ... I’d like to see us (finished by) mid-March.
KEEN: Well, I hope it’s quick. Certainly our intent from the House side is to get in, get our job done as quick as possible and get out. And the reason behind that, quite simply, is economics. With budget shortfalls, we don’t need to be spending any more money than we need to to get our job done. ... Whatever bills we don’t get done are still open and pending and can be addressed (in the next session). So get the budgets done and, basically, close up shop as quick as we can.
TELEGRAPH: How is the federal stimulus program going to affect us?
CAGLE: We’ve anticipated significant funds. The governor, I expect to have a pretty aggressive bond package that could be leveraged with federal funds to do needed infrastructure.
KEEN: I have no idea. I want to be honest. ... Right now we don’t know what that final product is going to be from Washington. ... We have to plan as if there’s no stimulus coming. Certainly if there is money from Washington ... for transportation and other projects, that will be a big help.
TELEGRAPH: How do you keep (between the stimulus and state bonds) this money explosion from leading to bad projects or bad politics?
CAGLE: Well, that’s one of the major concerns: Is there enough due diligence done on the front end to ensure you’re building the project that has the greatest degree of need. ... There’s quite a bit of forethought that has gone into this process.
KEEN: First of all, you do not create projects for projects’ sake. We already have, for example, a backlog of transportation projects ... that we simply don’t have the money to fund. So I think the first thing you do, from a transportation standpoint, you go to that list and you try to prioritize. I don’t hear any sentiment out there for going out and just trying to find projects to spend money on.
TELEGRAPH: Is the property reassessment cap pretty much a done deal?
CAGLE: I certainly wouldn’t say that it is a done deal. But certainly there is strong consensus on the issue. Of course the Senate passed the measure last year and is expected to do the same this year. The House has indicated that they are also supportive.
KEEN: It’s going to move early in the House. ... It certainly has the support of our caucus and leadership.
TELEGRAPH: How quickly will transportation funding be addressed and how will it be addressed?
CAGLE: I’ve challenged the Get Georgia Moving Coalition to bring a consensus plan on the (regional sales tax plan). Communities like Middle Georgia can come together to implement (a new penny sales tax). ... It is my intention (to move) that bill through the Senate the first week of session. ... It’s a constitutional amendment, so it would be put to the voters ... and then for the 1-cent tax to be levied, it would also require a vote by the region as well.
KEEN: That’s a good one. Still working to gain consensus between all the parties involved. ... I think the overall desire is there to get something done. It’s just working out the details. ... That one, I think everybody wants to get something done but, as we talk today, I don’t know we’ve found the right idea yet to get it done.
TELEGRAPH: What kind of funding will the halls of fame in Macon get this year?
CAGLE: It’s my hope that we can commit to funding, but it’s going to have to receive more scrutiny in terms of efficiencies.
KEEN: The speaker recently made a statement that I agree with and I think, from the House, will sort of be our philosophy of budgeting. When we’re looking at a budget situation as difficult as we are, you’re going to have to start first by looking at essentials to state government. ... After that it’s just going to be funding as funding will allow. ... Things like hall of fame and other things are not going to be at the top of the funding list.
TELEGRAPH: Does trauma funding have a chance? If so, by what mechanism?
CAGLE: The governor put in the budget last year (about) $60 million. It appears that he possibly may recommend funding again for trauma. How he funds that, obviously, is still open.
KEEN: I think it does have a chance. Again, it’s like transportation. It’s finding a funding source that sort of passes the smell test in the General Assembly. There’s no appetite up there for increasing taxes on people and fees on people at a time when the economy is struggling. ... That being said, there’s a definite need that’s been demonstrated.
TELEGRAPH: What chance do homestead exemption funds have?
CAGLE: It’s a $428 million hit. And, whether the governor puts it in his budget or we have to find it, it’s my desire that we live up to the commitment that we’ve made. ... I have not seen his budget. I would not be surprised, however, if it was not in there.
KEEN: I think that’s really a two-sided question. No. 1 is the homeowners tax relief grant that was funded in the current budget. We’re basically halfway through this fiscal year. ... It was reflected in property tax bills that went out. ... I believe, and this is me speaking, OK? That is a promise made and needs to be a promise kept. ... Local governments based their budget on that. ... Now, going forward, I’ve also said that we’ve got to take a second look at that whole program. ... It was really put in place to help keep property taxes down and the growth of the digest down. It hasn’t worked. We think a better method goes back to the freeze or reassessments. ... That, to me, is a better long-term solution (for property tax relief).
TELEGRAPH: In your opinion, how much waste is there in state government?
CAGLE: Waste is obviously defined differently by various people. ... What I will say is every government agency, every government agency without exception, and I would say including the office of lieutenant governor ... all of us can do a better job of being more efficient. ... Every corporation in America is downsizing very rapidly. ... My desire is to downsize state government by 10 percent. ... And I think that there are certain agencies that could take, certainly, in excess of 10 percent cuts and not affect their core service.
KEEN: To say in a $22 billion budget there is no waste is simply not true. ... We have prided ourself, candidly, the last four years on cutting and cutting and putting efficiencies in. I’m proud of a statistic again that, on a per capita basis, we’re spending less at the state government level in Georgia than we were in 1996. So we have controlled spending in a fast-growing state.
— Travis Fain