• Day 21 (Monday, March 8): After a two week working recess to address our budget woes, we’re back in session today and greeted with more bad news as we learn that February’s revenues fell by nearly 10 percent from this time last year. Considering that February 2009 revenues were down by 34 percent from February 2008, this means that February 2010 revenues are down 44 percent from two years ago- devastating news.
While most of the decrease for this year is due to an increase in taxpayer refunds that the Department of Revenue says is a result of faster processing, there appears to be an increase in the number and amount of refunds, suggesting that refunds nearer the end of the fiscal year may be higher as well. Keeping with the financial focus, we pass SB 381 today, a bill that will assess the current level of fees charged by various state agencies and commissions and determine which ones should be adjusted. Some fees have not been changed since 1955 and are actually costing the state more to administer and collect the fees than the revenue generated by the fees. If there is a silver lining in this financial catastrophe, it may be situations like these where we are looking at areas that should have been looked at long ago.
• Day 22 (Tuesday, March 9): In our never ending quest to balance state spending, we passed SR 822 today. This will allow retailers to open stores in rest stops with the revenues used to supplement state dollars to maintain the facilities. Because rest stops and welcome centers are great economic boosters for local areas, this additional funding will allow them to stay open later and serve more people. Also passed today was SB 22 that establishes the Georgia Coordinating Council for Rural and Human Services Transportation and charges them with finding efficiencies in providing and funding transportation services for rural citizens, the elderly and disabled. Hopefully this council will help fix a system broken up between six different agencies, creating a maze of bureaucracy.
• Day 23 (Wednesday, March 10): Water was the main focus of today’s session as we passed SB 370, the governor’s legislation to improve water conservation and drought preparation in our state. The bill includes new guidelines for plumbing fixtures as well as programs for voluntary water conservation. Also included in this bill is a provision that prohibits local governments from enacting stricter outdoor watering restrictions unless they get authorization from the Environmental Protection Division. Unfortunately, the bill does not address the hotly contested subject of interbasin transfers of water, which is of extreme importance to stakeholders outside of the Atlanta area. Also passed today was SB 906 that extends the deadline school boards have to offer employee contracts from April 15-May 15, allowing boards dealing with declining budgets additional time to determine the number of staff that can be hired for the next school year. We also took time out today to welcome members of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee to the Senate chamber.
• Day 24 (Thursday, March 11): One of the landmark bills of this session was passed today as SB 346. The property tax, assessment and appeals reform bill was voted out by an overwhelming 54-0 vote. Referred to by many as the most sweeping property-tax reform in state history, this bill will require assessment notices be sent every year to property owners so that they know the current valuation of their property for tax purposes. It also extends the time to appeal valuations from 30 days to 45 days and eliminates non-binding arbitration. Later in the day, the governor announced that he was reducing revenue estimates for the remaining fiscal year by $343 million, bringing it to $17.1 billion, a full $4 billion less than it was only two years ago.
Carter, R-Pooler, is reporting each week during the legislative session. The session began Jan. 11, and is expected to last until the latter days of March. Carter can be reached at Coverdell Legislative Office Building (C.L.O.B.) Room 302-B, Atlanta, GA, 30334. His Capitol office number is 404-656-5109.