With the economic outlook for Georgia still looking grim, state lawmakers said last week that they're gearing up for more budget cuts when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Several officials discussed the upcoming session of the state Legislature during a Tuesday breakfast meeting sponsored by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce at Savannah Rapids Pavilion.
Though the state economy is growing, Rep. Ben Harbin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers will need to cut another $1.8 billion to balance next year's budget. That likely will mean cuts to all state government services, including education, Harbin said.
While more cuts are expected, lawmakers said they also hope to increase revenues by eliminating some tax exemptions. Recommendations on the state's tax structure, including exemptions, are expected in January from a study committee.
State Rep. Lee Anderson said even some tax exemptions for farmers might disappear, which likely will result in higher grocery bills.
Harbin said he favors removing tax exemptions except on companies creating jobs in the state.
Maintaining exemptions for companies not creating jobs adds to everyone else's tax burden, he said.
To further grow the economy, Harbin said, voters likely will be asked in the 2012 election to approve a state constitutional amendment allowing a sales tax to fund transportation projects.
Officials expect business opportunities to dramatically increase at the Port of Savannah once the Panama Canal reopens in 2014, and the state needs to be ready for the added road traffic. Also, Harbin said, traffic congestion in Atlanta needs to be addressed.
"It hinders business," he said of the state's current traffic woes. "It hinders opportunities to grow in this state."
Georgia Labor Commissioner-elect Mark Butler delivered the keynote address at the meeting and said he hopes to use his new office to grow the economy by improving the work force.
Butler said that Department of Labor officials must work with businesses, governments and school systems to learn what is needed from workers and then develop programs to create that work force.
Butler said the Department of Labor always has operated as a reactionary organization, but said he wants to change that. By tracking employment trends to identify industries in decline, Butler said, he hopes to work with state technical schools on programs meant to retrain workers in those industries for new jobs.
"Our job is to help put people back to work," said Butler, who will take office in January as the first Republican ever to lead the Department of Labor. "We're going to be proactive in doing that."
Still, Butler said, many challenges lay ahead for the department, including a $500 million debt the state owes the federal government for the Unemployment Tax Trust Fund, inefficient procedures in the department and outdated technology.
"We're going to make the changes, and I want you to hold me accountable to that," Butler said. "Be patient, though."
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