Smith gearing up for General Assembly

By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL sarah@newnan.com As Georgia's state senators and representatives get ready for the start of the 2011 Georgia General Assembly session on Tuesday, they are facing the possibility of having to cut $2 billion from the already gutted state budget. That's more than earlier estimates, but "it is looking more like it is going to be $2 billion," said State Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan. Smith serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which will first tackle the supplemental budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 and then the "big budget" for fiscal year 2012.
The state of Georgia operates on a July to June fiscal year. In fiscal year 2008, at the "height of our optimism," the original state budget was $21.4 billion, Smith said. The FY 2011 budget was $17.9 billion. "We've cut everywhere," she said. As part of those cuts, "there are 6,000 fewer state employees than two years ago," Smith said. "So the state is doing what it has to do but ... our recovery is slow," she said. There is also typically a lag between the economy picking up and tax revenues increasing. "It's going to take us a while. It's not going to be quick," Smith said of the recovery. Of the entire state budget, a whopping 56 percent goes to education, which includes K-12 education, the University System, the technical college system, and the HOPE Scholarship. HOPE is starting to enter a fiscal crisis itself. Some people wonder how that can be since the Georgia Lottery is doing so well with sales. A big part of the reason is growth, Smith said. When the scholarship program began in 1994, there were 43,000 HOPE recipients with about $21 million spent. In FY 2009, there were 216,000 HOPE recipients with $523 million in HOPE awards. As the state cuts the budget for the board of regents, "they've raised tuition," Smith said, and that added tuition cost is coming out of HOPE. "There is going to have to be some hard number crunching," Smith said. And there is "always this debate of what really is a B average," she said. Because the Board of Regents, which runs the university system, is independent, the state government has little control over what the regents do. The state determines how much funding the system gets each year, but the board of regents decides what to do with that money. The budget cuts are going to be very hard this year. "It wouldn't surprise me if some agencies went away" in 2011, Smith said. Some agencies have already sustained punishing cuts while education, "believe it or not," has been protected "as much as possible," Smith said. On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia's state parks and historic sites saw their budgets cut by well over 40 percent. Smith said that under-construction Chattahoochee Bend State Park is close to her heart. "Thank heavens the bond money was there and the park is being built out. We'll have to see how it moves next year," she said. When it comes to budget discussions "usually what you hear is 'cut theirs, not mine,'" Smith said. Then, of course, there are the water wars. Smith has been involved with the water dispute between Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. All three states have new governors. "The baton has been passed to those three governors," Smith said, though negotiations have been ongoing for years. Smith was part of a panel discussion on water issues at the Biennial Institute, held at the beginning of each two-year session. The biennial used to be mainly for new members but "it's becoming kind of like a session preview," Smith said. There will be some changes in the House. There will be at least 35 new House members, Smith said. The Republican members are getting closer to a two-thirds majority, which is 120 members. There will be at least 116 Republicans this year, and possibly 118, depending on the results of two special elections. "This is a huge turnover," Smith said. And, other than Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, every state constitutional officer is new, too. One of the biggest issues, other than the budget, will be reapportionment -- the redrawing of state and federal election districts based on 2010 Census numbers. There will be a special session in the summer or fall exclusively for that. Even so, reapportionment is "going to overshadow some of the debates we will have this session," Smith said. "You will have every elected person keenly aware that redistricting is coming up." Smith looks forward to the proposed deepening of the Savannah River channel at Savannah. The funding will come from the federal government, but the long-awaited deepening -- needed for "supertankers" to begin using the port in 2014 -- "brings up some issues in the state." Illegal immigration is "something that we're going to have to deal with," Smith said. "It is an issue for the people who are here legally as citizens, and it's an issue for our Georgia citizens," she said. There's the committee dealing with tax reform and fairness that has been meeting. That committee will present a report to a joint House/Senate committee on taxes. Georgia has gone from an agricultural state to a manufacturing state and now "we have moved more into specialized and service-based" economies, Smith said. The state's tax system "is not keeping up with the type of economic production that we have." Whatever happens with tax changes, Smith wants to make sure they are revenue neutral, transparent, and fair. In all cases, "I benefit from hearing from the people in my district," Smith said. "They're very good about letting me hear from them. That has helped me understand issues." Constituents can send Smith an e-mail at lynn.smith@house.ga.gov. Because Smith gets so many e-mails -- sometimes several hundred per day -- it's a good idea to let her or her staff members know to be on the lookout for an e-mail from a constituent, by calling 404-656-7149. Or, if you have the time, "I think the best thing in the world... is for an interested person to go spend a day at the capitol," Smith said. "They might not necessarily be able to get my time" if she is busy on the floor or in a committee meeting, but "my office will welcome them," she said. "They can just go see government at work." As part of his inaugural festivities, Gov.-Elect Nathan Deal is making Saturday a day of service. "He is emphasizing, I think correctly, that we need to go back to where we were as a nation, neighbor helping neighbor," Smith said. "It's going to take more of what we can do than what government can do for us," she said. Smith said it reminds her of the old story "Stone Soup." A large group was hungry, and no one had anything to cook. One woman decided to make "stone soup." After that "somebody put in turnips and greens," and more and more people added what they had to the soup. "And all of a sudden, you can make it," Smith said. "That is what we are going to be doing, making stone soup this year. But it is going to work," she said.


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