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Tough 2011 ahead
Legislators foresee woes with budget
legis 1
District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton discusses the upcoming 2011 General Assembly during the pre-legislative breakfast Tuesday at West Forsyth High School. - photo by Jennifer Sami

Local lawmakers on Wednesday covered a variety of issues they likely will face during the upcoming state legislative session, with the common theme that 2011 is going to be a tough year.

Business leaders and students at West Forsyth High School heard from their elected officials during the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce’s annual pre-legislative breakfast.

District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton, District 24 state Rep.-elect Mike Dudgeon, both Republicans from Cumming, and District 51 state Sen.-elect Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, attended the event at the school.

As the only returning legislator present, Hamilton took the lead on current state topics, which ranged from the budget and water to transportation and taxes.

“Even with the rise in the tax revenue that we’re experiencing right now, we’re still going to see somewhere between ... $1 billion and $1.5 billion of a budget shortfall this next year,” he said.

“So when we took on the budget challenges last year ... we all were anxiously dreading the budget for the 2012 year.”

Cutting more money from an already tight budget is going to be difficult, Hamilton said. Nothing, even education, is likely to be safe.

“Education is the largest single component to the state budget,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to have a potential impact on education.”

That may be particularly difficult for Dudgeon, who is serving his last month on the Forsyth County Board of Education.

“There’s been a lot more cutting done on the other side of education and I want to continue to see that,” Dudgeon said. “But the reality is there’s no way to make the numbers work without some affect to K-12 funding. I wish there was another way to do it.”

West Forsyth government students had prepared questions to ask legislators.

Among the issues they raised: the federal No Child Left Behind act; potential priorities for President Barack Obama; and the impact to democracy from intelligence leaks over the Internet.

Other questions included how to make education competitive with cutbacks to funding and how the state could add infrastructure to attract jobs.

Transportation has continued to be a key issue for Hamilton, who noted funding continues to drop as more people purchase fuel-efficient vehicles. 

As a member of the state’s transportation board, Gooch said motor fuel tax collection has fallen from $1.5 billion to about $1 billion and is unlikely to pick up.

Current funding, he said, is “just not going to be enough.”

“The DOT is struggling day by day to try to build new roads, increase capacity of our lanes,” he said. “Going forward we have to look at other sources of revenue to fund transportation.”

Emily Vogt was one of a handful of student government representatives chosen to introduce and ask questions of the legislators.

Voght, who’s interested in possibly pursuing a political career, said helping with Wednesday’s forum was “a really good experience.”

“It’s really interesting to actually talk to people high up in the government like the legislators ... and what they have to say about everything that’s come up and how they’re handling situations,” she said.