Legislature Takes Time Sizing up Federal Funds|
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]