ATLANTA — Before they settle down to the ugly task of budget cuts, Georgia’s politicians Sunday gathered for a little pork. The barbecued kind that is.
More than 1,500 lawmakers, state employees and lobbyists packed the annual Wild Hog Supper near the state Capitol. Now in its 48th year, the gathering — complete with heaping plates of barbecue — has become a tradition for ushering in a new legislative session that begins Monday.
With 2010 elections looming, the event had the feel of a campaign meet-and-greet. All the major Republican candidates for governor were busy hobnobbing. So was U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who’s up for re-election.
Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle also rubbed shoulders with the crowd at The Depot.
But all the smiles and backslapping are a prelude to what’s expected to be a grim legislative session.
While the details of the budget remain under wraps, one thing is certain: it isn’t going to be pretty.
“We’re going to have a lot to say in the next few days,” Perdue said, declining to preview the budget he will roll out Wednesday.
State legislators will need to get to work almost immediately slashing about another $1 billion or so from the $18.6 billion state spending plan. The only real mysteries are where the cuts will come from and just how deep they will go.
State tax revenues have continued to plummet in Georgia and are lagging about 14 percent behind where they were for the previous fiscal year.
Nothing is considered safe. State employees and teachers are bracing for additional furlough days. Classroom funding is expected to drop. Health care for the poor could be slashed. Prisons could grow even more crowded. And state parks could be shuttered.
Republican leaders have pledged not to boost taxes or fees to fill the budget gap.
“You’re going to see us asking hard questions about what it is government really needs to be doing,” Cagle said.
But there may also be a fresh tone at the Capitol this year after the departure of House Speaker Glenn Richardson following a suicide attempt and allegations of an affair with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist. Richardson was combative, always in the middle of the fray with fellow Republicans.
The man expected to replace him — Blue Ridge Republican David Ralston — is known as far more collegial. Ralston was elected as the GOP nominee for speaker in a caucus vote. On Monday, he’s excepted to assume the job officially after a vote by the full House. Republicans control the chamber 105-74.