The 2011 session of the General Assembly will be dominated by the state budget shortfall. Current estimates are that the budget will have to be cut between $1.5 and $2.0 billion to meet expected revenue for FY 2011. Reduced tax collections and the elimination of federal subsidies will force significant budget cuts for all state agencies unless the Legislature can identify new sources of revenue or is willing to consider selective tax increases.
Revisions to Georgia tax law and how Georgia collects its tax dollars to fund the budget will be another controversial topic. The Legislature will debate the recommendations made by the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians, created during the 2010 session. The Council was charged with reviewing and proposing changes to the current tax code. The Council conducted public hearings this summer and fall, and its final proposals will be released in early January.
Changes in taxes proposed by the Council will likely include the elimination of many current tax exemptions utilized by Georgia businesses such as services by professional firms. Also, the state sales tax may be made applicable to food sales. Expect quick action from the legislature as the bill creating the Council requires an up or down vote.
Funding for the very popular HOPE scholarship program also will draw legislative scrutiny this term. Both Governor-elect Deal and Speaker of the House David Ralston have stated that long-term financial stability of this program is a priority. Currently, annual expenditures are exceeding the revenue from the Lottery and there almost certainly will be benefit reductions. Solutions proposed include eliminating coverage of certain fees and charges, making the scholarship needs rather than merit based and putting caps on total scholarship expenditures. Expect a vigorous debate on any changes to this popular program.
With the judicial deadline restricting the use of water from Lake Lanier looming and the continued lack of a tri-state agreement between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, the state’s water needs continue to be a topic of attention. Governor-elect Deal has indicated his support for the construction of new reservoirs. Given the budget woes, however, unless new financing mechanisms can be identified, these projects could stall, despite their need. Also, Georgia employers will want to keep careful attention on legislative attempts to mandate conservation of water usage. In the absence of new water sources, legislation restricting water access or increasing its cost will have profound effect on many Georgia businesses.
Several immigration reform bills, including some based on the Arizona model, will be introduced this year. This issue will likely generate a heated debate with broad implications for all businesses in Georgia. The proposed immigration bills, in one form or another, attempt to enact additional requirements that employers affirmatively determine if a new-hire is legally entitled to work in the United States. Most commonly, the bills being proposed will force all employers to use the federal e-verify system. Such a bill could well pass in the current legislative environment, although any state action first will have to survive a judicial challenge that it is federally preempted and unenforceable.
Finally, the one issue which will have the most impact politically, is redistricting of the legislative lines for Congressional and General Assembly seats. It will be the proverbial elephant in the room which no one really wants to mention but will influence every legislator.
Demographic shifts will likely result in fewer seats in south Georgia and more in north Georgia where the population has increased dramatically during the past ten years. All legislators will want to be in "good favor" as new lines are drawn later this year – which can come into play as difficult issues including those mentioned above are brought up for vote.