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Budget pains to spread
Tough cuts loom as 2009 session nears
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Forsyth County News


Forsyth County's state legislators talk at length about the 2009 session. Only in Sunday's edition of the Forsyth County News.

Since the 2008 legislative session ended in April, the economy has taken a drastic downturn, home values have tanked and many Georgia's taxpayers have lost their jobs, homes and businesses.

The result is a $2 billion shortfall for the upcoming budget, leaving legislators scrambling to cut about 10 percent from the state's $20 billion budget.

"There will be no part of Georgia that will not be affected by this and there will be no representative or senator anywhere that doesn't have some constituents that are going to be affected," said District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton of Cumming.

Hamilton and the other four members of Forsyth County's state legislative delegation, all Republicans, return to Atlanta on Monday as the 2009 session of the General Assembly gets under way.

"We're really going to have to examine everything we spend money on and prioritize where those dollars are going to be spent," Hamilton said. "The good news is once we come out of this, we will be much better off."

While their possible solutions may vary, Forsyth's delegates agree the budget is the top priority this session.  

District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy of Cumming serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee. With a $20 billion budget and itemized expenditures as small as $1,000,  he said legislators have to be "really diligent taking a look at our budget and seeing where we can cut."

His focus has been on the budget, but the bill that's garnering Murphy the most attention is his proposal to impose a $5 surcharge on strip club patrons.

The resulting revenue would be set aside in a fund operated by the criminal justice system and would go specifically toward rehabilitation and treatment facilities for underage victims of sexual exploitation.

Murphy said treatment facilities would provide a place for victims to be "mothered, given self respect back and be given some love and understanding."

"It's getting them back into society, rather than letting them drift off into the ... youth detention camps," he said. "We shouldn't criminalize them. Some of these kids are just victims."

Opponents of the legislation, slated to be introduced Jan. 15, say it could have a negative impact on the adult entertainment industry. But Murphy disagrees.

"I don't think it's going to hurt the industry one bit," he said.

District 51 state Sen. Chip Pearson of Dawsonville plans to introduce several bills this session, largely focused on the economy.

Among his proposals is a stimulus for the housing industry and regulatory reform to help make housing more economical.

Pearson cited testimony given during a committee meeting, indicating 23 percent of home mortgages in Georgia show the amount owed by the homeowner is in excess of the home's value.

"These are performing mortgages that are basically upside down," he said. "If we continue for the next 12 months at the current pace, which is declines of over 1 percent a month in real terms, we could potentially be looking at more than half the mortgages with people having zero or negative equity in their homes. That would be, I think, catastrophic."

Pearson noted that the state is facing unprecedented statistics, including being No.2 in the nation in terms of job loss and No. 3 in the nation in unemployment.

While state-funded programs from school systems to tourism attractions are bracing for a reduction, District 24 state Rep. Tom Knox of Cumming warns some programs could face more than reductions.

"Taxpayers in Georgia can't afford to spend $2 billion in taxes to fund the government's programs, so we're going to have to figure out some way to get rid of programs that we don't need or that aren't critical," he said.

"I'd like to see us not have very much legislation this year, and concentrate on cutting out the waste and the unnecessary expenses to get our budget balanced."

Education funding, the state's biggest expense, is likely to be cut by 10 percent, said District 9 state Rep. Amos Amerson of Dahlonega.

"Higher education can pick up a certain amount of reimbursement through increase in fees and tuition," he said. "But I'm not sure exactly how [kindergarten through 12th grade] will feel the pinch.

"I'm sure that there's no way we're going to continue what we're doing now, without everybody sharing the pain."

One thing is for sure, Hamilton said, "It's definitely going to be a much more painful and difficult process, but ... there are no sacred cows that will not be looked at."