Local delegation reviews 'difficult' legislative session

It’s over, and it was difficult. Legislators cut the budget, changed the way transportation decisions are made, disagreed about how to fund the halls of fame and like each other anyway.

That’s the five-second version of the past three months for state legislators from Macon and Bibb County. They gave a slightly extended account of the recently ended 2009 legislative session — about an hour and a half’s worth — Tuesday morning to about 100 local business people gathered for a local chamber of commerce breakfast.

“Probably the most difficult (session) I’ve served in in 35 years,” said state Rep. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat and one of the longest-serving legislators in Georgia.

Other Macon and Bibb County legislators seconded that. They said they were glad to be home after three months of lawmaking and budget-cutting in Atlanta.

“Believe it or not, government in the state of Georgia actually shrank (this year),” state Sen. Cecil Staton told the crowd.

It did indeed, thanks to more than $2 billion in budget cuts. But Staton, R-Macon, neglected to mention another key that allowed the state to balance its budget in hard economic times: hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars.

That money, along with a hefty dip into state reserves, allowed the state to avoid the deepest cuts this year, though many state employees have had to take furlough days to balance the budget.

The prospect of another session looms this year, though. How the economy does over the next few months and how that affects state revenues should show whether the state’s revenue estimate will be on the money. The annual state budget is based on that estimate and, if actual revenues are much different, legislators could be headed back to Atlanta to find more cuts.

Local legislators also rehashed some of their disagreements about the Georgia music and sports halls of fame Tuesday. They tried to add a penny to the local hotel-motel tax this session to help fund the state-run museums, and possibly other local projects, but were unable to come together behind one plan.

“It’s behind us now,” state Rep. Allen Peake said of that disagreement.

Peake, R-Macon, said legislators will try again next year to find new funding for the halls, which have seen their budgets cut more than most state departments.

Legislators also noted that some money, about $23 million, was budgeted for the state’s trauma facilities, the governor was given more power over the state’s transportation plans, several tax credits meant to spur hiring passed, the Georgia Department of Human Resources was reorganized and a bill was passed requiring voters to prove their citizenship when they register.

It was, the Bibb County area’s newest legislator said, something of a mixed bag.

“Unfortunately, not all the factors behind legislation benefit the good or the will of the people,” said state Rep. Bubber Epps, D-Dry Branch.

“We don’t need to lose sight of the fact that we’re all in this together, that all of us are going to benefit or all of us are going to lose,” said Epps, who was in Atlanta for his first session this year.