Thursday, January 29, 2009

Transportation top concern for business community
by Jeanne Bonner
Georgia Online News Service

Advocates for firms have modest goals for legislative session

Solving the state's transportation woes is business leaders' top priority for the 2009 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly that reconvened this week.

Business officials say the problem goes beyond congestion in metro Atlanta, which affects the coastal cargo ports and everything in between. The lack of a comprehensive transportation solution is undermining efforts to lure companies to Georgia, they say, and hampering the ability of existing firms to move goods around the state and attract employees.

But transportation is one of the few large issues affecting business expected to advance this session. The state's dire financial straits should prevent more ambitious legislation. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Georgia Senate proposed transportation bills this week that would hinge on a sales tax to fund road, bridge and transit projects.

Business leaders also continue to talk about the state's ongoing drought, and companies involved in agriculture hope the Legislature will commit more money to deal with the water shortage. A comprehensive water bill passed last year calls for funding initiatives already approved.

Lobbyists and others who monitor state legislation have flocked to the state Capitol this month to push for Sunday alcohol sales, expanded trauma care and other issues, but most of them have modest goals for this year's session. Even organizations that represent Georgia's largest industries, including tourism, say they hope just to maintain the status quo. One notable exception is homebuilders, who hope to receive some economic assistance from lawmakers.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has said legislators need to find more than $2 billion in budget cuts. Among the items on the chopping block are funding for school nurses and property tax relief grants.

Business leaders say now's the time

Business leaders across the spectrum say the state cannot afford to delay any longer in enacting comprehensive legislation on transportation and addressing pressing improvements to roads, bridges and transit systems. A year ago, legislators came close to passing a transportation bill, but the measure lost in the state Senate after passing the House.

"One thing that the business community wants to see is action this year on some transportation solution," said Renay Blumenthal, senior vice president of public policy at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

"Even site-selection consultants have told us our traffic is probably the one thing that keeps us off the short list" for corporate relocations and other economic development projects, Blumenthal said.

Transportation legislation is deemed feasible partly because a framework for this session exists from a number of past failures to pass a bill that would address congestion and other issues.

One of the two transportation bills proposed this week would allow Georgia's disparate areas to determine and fund their own transportation projects using a regional sales tax. The other bill would instead institute a statewide penny sales tax, via a constitutional amendment.

Business leaders are paying close attention to everything from the possible reorganization of the state Department of Transportation to making the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority a true regional system.

Water remains an issue

Farmers and other businesses involved in agriculture across Georgia are hopeful that this legislative session will produce a budget that preserves funding envisioned by the comprehensive water bill passed last year. In the meantime, they eagerly await appointments to regional water councils that officials say are the cornerstone of the legislation passed last year.

"Getting these councils going is a major concern," said Gary W. Black, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

A reliable source of water is critical for companies such as poultry processors, which compose a key part of Georgia's agriculture industry, Black said. He said he hopes the regional councils will help balance conservation efforts with federal food safety regulations that poultry processors much follow.

"You can't tell them to just use five gallons of water per bird when they may need seven gallons," Black said.

Water remains a concern for a number of other sectors, including landscaping and tourism.

"We always need water to service our hotel properties and attractions," said Ron D. Fennel, who handles governmental affairs for the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association.

Homebuilders hope for assistance

Despite the need for deep budget cuts, homebuilders across Georgia, who have been battered by a sinking housing market and skyrocketing foreclosures, are hoping for a state stimulus package not unlike legislation passed in Washington.

Kurt Cannon, a homebuilder in Clayton who is president of the Home Builders Association of Georgia, said his organization is pressing legislators to consider tax credits, tax abatements and other forms of assistance. For example, Cannon said, his group hopes legislators will provide $5,000 in tax credits to residents who buy a new home within an initial six-month period.

Homebuilders also would like to see a stay on taxes for newly built properties that are vacant, Cannon said; the reasoning is that those houses are not burdening school districts or such infrastructure as roads. He also said the organization would push legislators to take a fresh look at the impact fees homebuilders pay.

Of the federal money already allotted to ease the housing crisis, Cannon said, "It is not getting down to Main Street."

Georgia had the eighth-highest foreclosure rate in the nation last year, according to RealtyTrac, a company in Irvine, Calif, that markets distressed properties. Cannon said Georgia has lost nearly 200,000 construction-related jobs since the end of 2006.

Business is "terrible," Cannon said, referring to his own company, Rabun Builders Inc. "I'm meeting with a potential customer tomorrow. That's becomes a rarity," Cannon said in an interview last week. "They just quit calling."

David Oliver of the Georgia Bankers Association said that his organization's members are facing "unprecedented challenges" because of the housing crisis and that he is interested in cooperative approaches that would include banks, developers and homeowners to ease difficulties.

Oliver said he is following two pieces of legislation connected with foreclosures but neither includes relief for homeowners or assistance for banks. He said he is unaware of other pending or proposed legislation directly connected with the housing crisis.

Sunday alcohol sales, other issues also on the table

The 2009 session also has seen the revival of some perennial issues, including allowing retailers to sell package alcohol on Sundays. The bill has the support of supermarket chains such as Kroger, and some backers say it can gain traction this session because passage would bring in much-needed revenue for the state.

Georgia Power Co. is lobbying legislators to pass the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act, which would allow the utility to charge customers now for the construction of future plants to generate electricity. Many consumer groups oppose such payment in advance.

Utility spokesman Jeff Wilson said the measure is necessary because, despite current economic struggles, growth will continue and demand for energy will rise with it, which will necessitate new plants, including nuclear.

Chambers of commerce and other business organizations continue to push for increased incentives for economic development projects and for tax relief for businesses.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, for example, which represents 4,000 businesses, supports limiting annual increases in property taxes for small businesses, said Joe Fleming, its senior vice president for government affairs.

Fennel of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association has urged state lawmakers to increase spending on tourism advertising. Both men concede that any legislation that requires additional spending or decreases state revenue has little chance of passing.

"Do we have a wish list? Sure," Fleming said. "But in this economy, the reality is this is the wrong year to press the case."

Jeanne Bonner is the senior business writer at Georgia Online News Service.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. Have you done your daily dose of sinning? If so, those guilty pleasures are likely to come back and slap you – in the pocketbook. Actually, as veteran political reporter Kris Jensen tells us in his report for the Georgia Online News Service, if the state would get serious about taxing the seven deadly sins, it could do a lot to ease the budget crunch.

Meanwhile, GONSO business writer Jeanne Bonner says Georgia's businesses are lining up at the Gold Dome to be heard. At the top of the business agenda are predictable concerns over crises such as transportation and water – but other groups, such as the beleaguered homebuilders, are also clamoring for relief.

Finally, Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, has a message for the Legislature: Don't forget the kids.

Do you like what you're seeing from the Georgia Online News Service? Send us your comments, rants and story ideas. Do you need something covered in your community? We're listening, so give us a call at 800-891-3459 or write me at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org.

John F. Sugg, Executive Editor


Today's GONSO

A sure(hell)-fire way to raise state funds? Tax all 7 Deadly Sins

by K. Patrick Jensen
COMMENTARY/HUMOR

The "wages of sin" don't pay too badly in Georgia, where tobacco, liquor and the lottery contribute millions of dollars to fund state operations in bad and good economic times.

Faced with a $2 billion-ish budget shortfall, legislators are thinking of new ways to raise public revenues from private actions. And Georgia certainly isn't alone. Cash-strapped legislatures nationwide are looking at "sin taxes" for some revenue, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Full Story

Transportation top concern for business community

by Jeanne Bonner
Solving the state's transportation woes is business leaders' top priority for the 2009 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly that reconvened this week.

Business officials say the problem goes beyond congestion in metro Atlanta, which affects the coastal cargo ports and everything in between. The lack of a comprehensive transportation solution is undermining efforts to lure companies to Georgia, they say, and hampering the ability of existing firms to move goods around the state and attract employees.

But transportation is one of the few large issues affecting business expected to advance this session. The state's dire financial straits should prevent more ambitious legislation. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Georgia Senate proposed transportation bills this week that would hinge on a sales tax to fund road, bridge and transit projects.

Full Story

Lesson for legislators: Don't forget the children

by Pat Willis
After a year of rising unemployment, a housing market crash, credit crisis and diminishing tax revenue, it's hard to imagine that anyone was sad to see 2008 go.

Georgia, like other states, begins a new year with budget woes that could mean deep cuts in vital programs and services. There's no way around it. But it's important in these tough times to maintain a solid foundation for future growth when the economy improves.

Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
The high price of cheap gasoline
by Tex Pitfield
Plan for best use of Chattahoochee’s water is criticized
by Maggie Lee
State parks have "great value" – but not to budget writers
by Wendy Parker

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