The General Assembly has cut almost $4 billion from the state budget over the past two years, and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, says the cuts will continue for at least the next year.
“We are going to face a challenging session next year with the budget. It’s going to be tougher than this year,” he said. “We haven’t seen the sort of modest improvement we thought we would see. But the business forecasters continue to tell us we are going to see some modest uptick before the end of the year.”
Ralston spoke at a campaign event on Tuesday in Dalton for Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, and Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta.
“You need tough, common-sense, conservative-minded people in the room making those decisions. They are two of the most outstanding members of the Georgia House. They are great leaders for this part of the state,” he said.
Ralston said it is still too early to tell how much the Legislature will have to cut. The fiscal 2011 budget, which lawmakers approved earlier this year, was $17.9 billion, down from $18.6 billion in fiscal 2010, which ends today, and $21.5 billion in 2009.
Besides the budget, Ralston said lawmakers will tackle at least two more major items next year. The first is a complete overhaul of the state tax code.
The General Assembly created a commission this year to study the tax code and present a new code to lawmakers next year. They will then have an up-or-down vote on the matter. Ralston said he isn’t sure if lawmakers will accept that proposal or vote it down and use it as a basis for their own rewrite of the tax code.
“There’s only one politician on that commission, Gov. Perdue. The rest are conservative, free market economists and successful business people. I don’t know what they are going to do,” he said. “I want them to engage in a vigorous discussion about what tax policy will make Georgia more attractive to business. If they do that and do it successfully, the Legislature is going to look favorably on their recommendations.”
One change that some local leaders have asked for is eliminating the sales tax on energy purchases by manufacturers. They say neighboring states don’t charge such a tax and it makes Georgia less competitive with those states.
But Ralston said he doesn’t know if that will be part of any tax reform package.
“Right now, we’ve got over 120 exemptions from the sales tax. It’s time to sit down and look at what we get in return for those exemptions,” he said. “Having said that, I understand the importance of providing incentives to certain areas of the economy. I’m not opposed to looking at that. The tax reform council we’ve created is going to look at that exemption as well as all the others.”
Lawmakers will also redraw state legislative districts and congressional districts next year after census results are in.
“It’s fairly certain that we are going to get one more district,” Ralston said.
Many leaders in northwest Georgia have said they want that district created here.
“We’d like to see a more homogeneous district,” said Dalton Mayor David Pennington.
Ralston said he isn’t sure if that’s where the Legislature will put it but having strong leaders from this area in the General Assembly will help.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, also stopped by to support Williams and Dickson. He said he expects lawmakers to revisit transportation funding next year and possibly make some revisions to the regional transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOSTs) Georgians will vote on in 2012.
“We’ll have a new governor next session. I’m supporting Nathan Deal. But whoever the next governor is, he’ll probably want to have their two cents put into that legislation,” Mullis said.
Dickson and Williams said they were glad to have Ralston and others come out to support them.
“I’m honored that he is here, and I’m glad that the people of this area have a chance to get to know him better,” said Williams.