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Legislative preview: More cuts

The calendar may have changed to 2013, but legislators this month will begin to face the main issue that has affected Georgia the past several years: state budget cuts.

Wrestling with those cuts will be one of the top duties of local legislators Rep. Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City) and Sen. Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone).

Chance will serve this year as the new majority leader of the Senate, the second-highest ranking position in the chamber. Ramsey will again this year serve as vice chair of the majority caucus.

Ramsey said budget cuts this year will be to the tune of several hundred million dollars as revenue has stayed flat while growth has continued on the expense side with Medicaid, K-12 education and also college enrollment.

“I think the option of budget reductions will probably affect all segments of the state budget,” Ramsey said. “But at the end of the day we will come out of it with a balanced budget and continue to govern our state in a fiscally conservative manner.”

Because of a “lack of appetite” for tax increases, that translates to budget cuts at the state level, where the recession has already trimmed some $2 billion off the annual state budget, which this year totalled $39.5 billion.

The state constitution requires a balanced budget, so expenses have to meet revenues, Ramsey said.

“It’s a novel concept, I think, actually not spending more than you take in,” Ramsey said, adding that he wished such a policy could be adopted at the federal level.

Chance noted that the state budgeting process is dependent on what happens in Washington including the ongoing fiscal discussions in Congress. One key facet of the budget, Chance said, is the Medicaid program, which needs nearly $400 million in new funds thanks to declining revenue and increased enrollment growth.

The state is facing expiration of a program that enacted a temporary fee on hospitals to qualify for matching federal funding of nearly $2 for every dollar collected, which was returned to hospitals as reimbursement for Medicaid services. If that program and fee expire, the state will face an additional $150 million Medicaid shortfall, Chance said.

Beyond budget cuts, Ramsey said he expects the legislature will address school safety in light of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month.

“I think we will absolutely take a look at school security and make sure Georgia is doing everything we possibly can to make sure our children are safe when they go to school,” Ramsey said.

Chance said he is hopeful for ethics reform to be addressed early on, noting that the topic has received “overwhelming bipartisan support not only from legislators but from Georgians statewide.”

“We have had many discussions during the summer and fall about proposed ethics legislation, and I believe this issue must (and will) be addressed during the early stages of the legislative session.

Ramsey said he is looking at potential legislation to restrict eminent domain rights of governments which has expanded since 2004 when the General Assembly passed the Property Rights Protection Act. Some case law has transpired since then that swings the other way and needs to be addressed, Ramsey said.

“We want to make sure the intent of it is to have the most rigorous property rights protection law in the country,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said he is also looking at possible legislation to close loopholes in the state’s foreclosure statutes, though this is tantamount to technical changes that would bore most people.

Another potential bill expected to be considered by the legislature would allow parents to vote to convert their school to a charter school if it fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress, the minimum guidelines set forth by the federal government. The details of the proposal still are not clear, but Ramsey said he plans to meet next week with the author, Rep. Edward Lindsey.

Ramsey said he hopes to continue serving on the non-civil judiciary committee and also the House appropriations committee, although those assignments won’t be finalized for another two weeks. Ramsey has an edge, though, considering that he also sits on the House “committee of assignments” too.

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