Thursday, February 12, 2009

Legislature Takes Time Sizing up Federal Funds
by Maggie Lee
Georgia Online News Service

Georgia's taking its own path in deciding to declare a split legislative session this year, in hopes of some manna from Washington that might help the state plug an $2.2 billion budget gaps. But now that the federal stimulus package is all but approved, Georgia's going to have to shift from what one state legislator calls "hoping and praying" for federal aid, to planning what to do with the state's highly earmarked portion.

After intense negotiation in Washington and presidential lobbying on television, Congress approved a $789 billion stimulus package Wednesday.

Schools get a $54 billion tranche of that. The U.S. Department of Education will distribute the funds to help states avoid shortfalls in public school budgets. About one-fifth of that is further earmarked to modernize schools, colleges and universities, but not build new ones.

Transport infrastructure gets almost as much as schools, some $50 billion. However, the Georgia Department of Transportation's wish list, compiled in December, already adds up to $3.4 billion. The list proposes $1.1 billion for MARTA and $2.2 billion for GDOT roadway projects, including maintenance.

States will also get a portion of some $87 billion to pay Medicaid shortfalls. Smaller programs, like grants for hiring law enforcement officers or weatherizing homes, may accrue to Georgia.

But the 50 states are expected to face a cumulative shortfall of more than $200 billion in fiscal year 2010, according to figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Georgia's legislators and some state leaders are scheduled to meet in the state Capitol Friday to start figuring out what they may be due from Washington and how to spend it.

Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) notes cuts will have to come, no matter what comes from Washington.

"The state is not going to create any new funding options," he says.

"These cuts are going to be devastating. Our only prayer is that we get a fiscal stimulus that will allow us to soften the cuts."

The state House and Senate last week voted overwhelmingly to split the usual January-to-March session. Now they'll meet three days a week until March 25, making a total of 35 working days. After that, there's a recess until June 22, the last full calendar week in the fiscal year.

The legislature is supposed to pass a 2010 budget, but the extension makes the legislature more flexible to amend that budget without the expense of declaring a special session, say both House and Senate leaders.

"It is our intention to be done with all of our work this year in 35 days. It is what we'd like to be able to do to save the taxpayer considerable amount of money Returning at the last week in June in case there is a more serious downturn in the economy or if we have to deal with some changes coming from Washington, D.C., we would like to reserve those days," said Senate majority leader Chip Rodgers (R-Woodstock) in introducing the resolution.

The new calendar makes Mar. 12 the "crossover day" the day when bills from one house must reach the other to be considered before the end of the session.

Georgia has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the county, a mere 40 days from January until the end of March. Across the country, there are eight legislatures (plus the District of Columbia) that meet year-round. Some of the part-time states always stay in session until June or July. Arkansas' session is about as short as Georgia's, but is "usually" extended every year, according to statistics gathered by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Maggie Lee specializes in quality of life topics, Atlanta's international communities and general reporting. She covers Georgia economic development and the Chinese community as a stringer for China Daily and chronicles life in Georgia's most diverse county for the DeKalb Champion.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! Before I get into two news stories for today, I want to call your attention to articles we're moving on the Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) that are crafted for weekend editions and, of course, this weekend is Valentine's Day. In commemoration of the day of hearts, we'll send you a sweetheart of a column on Friday by Jeanne Bonner. On subjects other than the Cupid beat, one of Georgia's most respected food and restaurant writers, Susan Puckett, has a good weekender (or, good any day) article among today's line up on how eateries across the state are struggling to survive during the economic downturn. And, if you want a weightier piece to digest over the weekend, I'll author an analysis tomorrow on how "economic development" measures in the General Assembly are bad business for citizens. Also moving tomorrow will be a story with two versions one geared to the entire state, the other targeted to Atlanta by Jeanne Bonner on the innovative ideas condo developers are coming up with to sell units. Finally, veteran Atlanta journalist Maynard Eaton will have an article tomorrow on what's happening with the Legislature's black caucus.

Today, we have two thought-provoking pieces on the Legislature. Lyle Harris gives us some important background on Georgia Power's scheme to "pay it forward" financing for future nuclear plants. And, Maggie Lee writes about how state officials are already planning how to carve up the anticipated stimulus dollars that will flow from Washington.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org. You can also call us at 800-891-3459.


Today's GONSO

Governor Perdue: Deliver us from the land of nuclear make believe

by Lyle Harris
Georgia Power, the state's largest utility, has been living in a regulatory fantasyland for so long that it has grown accustomed to all its wildest dreams coming true --facts be damned. Now, after the state Senate has ignored mounting public outrage over a bill that would force the utility's residential customers into paying upfront financing costs for two nuclear reactors, there's scant hope that the company's legislative pixies will return to reality anytime soon.
Full Story

Legislature Takes Time Sizing up Federal Funds

by Maggie Lee
Georgia's taking its own path in deciding to declare a split legislative session this year, in hopes of some manna from Washington that might help the state plug an $2.2 billion budget gaps. But now that the federal stimulus package is all but approved, Georgia's going to have to shift from what one state legislator calls "hoping and praying" for federal aid, to planning what to do with the state's highly earmarked portion.
Full Story

Recipe for preventing a disaster

by Susan Puckett
When profits from his Brunswick, Ga., restaurant dipped late last year along with the national economy, chef-owner Jayson Ridinger closed the doors for good. But rather than hang up his apron, he and his sommelier wife, Christie, the restaurant's namesake, strolled down the block of this old seaport town and bought Cargo Portside Grill. One of the state's most celebrated restaurants outside of Atlanta, Cargo was closing after its owner also decided to call it quits.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
FOR ATLANTA: Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel if you want to sell condo units in this real estate market
by Jeanne Bonner
FOR AREAS OUTSIDE OF ATLANTA: Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel if you want to sell condo units in this real estate market
by Jeanne Bonner
Valentine's Day Done My Way
by Jeanne Bonner
The Audacity of Hype
by Ralph Reed

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