Area legislation moving, budget proposal stalls

By Diane Wagner

Tuesday is the deadline for the state House of Representatives to deliver a budget proposal to the Senate, but legislators are divided on how to deal with an estimated $400 million deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"There will be a tax increase," state Rep. Teresa Greene Johnson, D-Lithonia, said. "I don't want to see it, but we have to do it. We have to have a balanced budget and there's nothing left to cut."

A version likely to go before the full House on Monday eliminates millions from school construction, greenspace and indigent defense programs but still is about $140 million short. Gov. Sonny Perdue is pushing to raise taxes on tobacco products to make up the difference, but many of his fellow-Republicans are balking.

"I can't vote to raise any taxes and I told that to the governor," state Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers, said. "I've made promises, signed pledges. I can't go back on my word to the people."

Crotts said the state Senate has a balanced budget proposal based on deep spending cuts, but can do nothing with it until the House sends its legislation.

A joint Senate-House committee would have to work out the differences between the two versions before the session ends or Perdue has said he would call a special session. The regular session runs 40 days, and Monday will be Day 32.

Meanwhile, several pieces of local legislation are working their way through the Georgia General Assembly.

A Senate bill likely to come up for a vote on Monday would create the Clayton County Board of Elections and Registration. The five-member appointed board, plus a hired director, would take over election responsibilities currently handled by Probate Court Judge Eugene Lawson in addition to his court duties.

A House bill would allow the Henry County cities of Hampton and Stockbridge to amend their charters so elected officials could also serve on other boards such as a development authority or planning commission.

Hampton also wants approval to create a public facilities authority. City Manager Bob Zellner said the authority would be able to tap alternate funding sources for a badly needed sewer treatment plant.

"It's something our attorney and bond counsel suggested we look into," he said. "We may or may not do it, but it gives us more financing options."

A House bill would give Lake City residents a $60,000 homestead exemption on this year's property taxes. City Administrator Gerald Garr said payments from businesses and Local Option Sales Taxes are enough to offset the lost revenue.

"We're trying to shift some of the burden from homeowners onto business," Garr said. "Most of the time, demands for services are greater from businesses than from single-family residences. This will just equal things out."

Once the bill passes, residents would have to vote the exemption into effect during a July referendum.

Legislation giving a homestead exemption to Henry County residents will be allowed to die this year, although its sponsor state Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, said it could be resubmitted in 2004.

The bill would roll back taxes equal to the amount a reassessment would increase them, but it is unclear if the Henry County school system would be able to absorb the loss of revenue at this time.