State budget hearings continued yesterday at the state Capitol as the Senate and House Appropriations Committees heard presentations on Corrections, Transportation, Public Safety, Economic Development and the University system. 

“This week we began the process of balancing and approving Georgia’s 2009 and 2010 budgets as proposed by Governor Perdue.  The General Assembly has some tough choices to make, but working together we can prevail with a balanced budget that encourages long-term stability, fiscal responsibility and serves Georgians with their most urgent needs,” said Senator Jack Hill, senate appropriations chairman.

Legislators were anxious to hear how budget cuts would affect the Department of Transportation’s ability to meet critical transportation needs across the state.  DOT Commissioner Gena Evans assured the committees that the department paid careful attention to cutting costs without sacrificing service, but noted that the legislature will need to redirect funds in order for the department to meet immediate transportation needs in FY 2010.  The department currently faces a $189 million deficit for FY 2009.  A large portion of the department’s revenue is derived from the state’s motor fuel tax, which in June took a significant hit when Governor Perdue suspended an increase in the state gas tax due to sharply rising gas prices.  DOT is also working on preparing projects for immediate implementation in the event that Georgia receives funding from a Federal economic stimulus package.  Those projects will most likely be rehabilitation-based.   

Efforts to condense the Departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice budgets prompted questions from legislators on ensuring that facility security be maintained despite personnel cuts.  The Department of Juvenile Justice emphasized their decisions to cancel programs that were not effective or “mission critical.”  The Department of Public Safety also focused on operational reductions made to meet budget cuts.  Several legislators raised concerns about the lack of law enforcement focused on highway safety.  The commissioner stated that despite budget cutbacks, there is a focus on highway and interstate safety in the most troublesome areas around the state.

Commissioner Ken Stewart of the Department of Economic Development chose to highlight several bright spots in Georgia’s economy, including the Delta and Northwest merger making Georgia home to the largest airline in the world.  Georgia is increasingly competitive in securing entertainment projects after the legislature passed an entertainment incentive package last year, and the recent deepening of the Savannah port will greatly increase commerce.  In order to boost the state’s economy, the department will direct its resources to focus on existing businesses as well as the military to bring more business to Georgia suppliers.

Yesterday’s meeting concluded with a presentation on the University system in which Chancellor Erroll Davis encouraged the legislature to consider the system’s budget as an investment in Georgia’s long term future.  Budget cuts proposed by the Governor significantly impact the system’s teaching program, which is the Board of Regents’ top priority.  Chancellor Davis said he would not consider furlough options to save money, but would rather make structural changes that will sustainably reduce costs. 

Today the Appropriations committees will hear from the Human Resources and Community Health departments, as well as the Office of Planning and Budget.