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State budget lean on local appropriations

By Justin Reedy

Both preliminary versions of the state budget for 2004 have almost no appropriations for Clayton County or any other community in Georgia, legislators say.

State legislators have struggled to balance the state budget with Georgia facing a nearly $1 billion revenue shortfall.

The state House version of the budget, which has already been approved, included proposed massive cuts to human resources programs and would eliminate more than $1 million earmarked for the county's bus system.

"The budget is not a pretty sight for Clayton County," said state Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro.

In addition to those proposed cuts, Buckner said, there is very little money slated to go to local governments and school systems.

"If the budget passes in its current form, it's going to cause every local school system and government to have to raise taxes or lay off teachers and other employees," she said.

The Senate version of the budget, which was approved by its appropriations committee this week and will likely go before the full Senate today, doesn't include tax increases and relies on heavy spending cuts to balance the budget. But a small portion of funding for C-TRAN, the Clayton County bus system, wound up in the Senate's budget draft.

"Both House and Senate members said that a final amount will be negotiated (when the two different versions of the budget go to the) conference committee," said spokesman William Mecke with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the state agency which runs C-TRAN. "This budget does not impact the implementation of Phase II of the bus service, which has already been quite successful."

Local legislators think the funding for C-TRAN, since it is general funding and not local appropriations, could wind up in the final version of the state budget.

"I see that going back in," said Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City.

"We've got to get that in the budget," added Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro. "There's a federal match on that funding, and we can't afford to lose that."

But other local appropriations could be more dicey, legislators say, and that could spell trouble for local government agencies and non-profit organizations.

"I don't know if we'll see any other local appropriations," Dodson said. "I've never seen a budget look like that. A lot of organizations get themselves to where they depend on that funding, and use it in their budget year. I've warned them about that."

Some of the high-profile cuts from local spending include $150,000 earmarked for Calvary Refuge, a homeless shelter in Forest Park. But local legislators say they will continue to work on getting such funding back into the budget before a final version is approved by the conference committee.

"Passing the budget is a long process, so we're certainly not giving up," Buckner said. "We'll just have to try harder."