Immigration. Tax reform. A rewrite of the state’s open meetings and records laws. Problems of pill mills. Mortgage fraud. Reform of the state’s criminal justice system. An initiative to amend the U.S. Constitution.
These are some of the issues that Oconee County’s representatives to the Georgia General Assembly said they believe they will be dealing with when the body convenes on Jan. 9 in Atlanta.
The precariousness of the state’s budget also will be a central concern, both Rep. Chuck Williams and Sen. Bill Cowsert told a meeting hosted by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce yesterday.
The signs of recovery are encouraging, Williams told the gathering, “But it may be tougher for the legislature and governor to deal with the budget if we are seeing some signs of recovery.”
Everybody will want full funding restored, he said, and it will be hard to know where to use the limited revenues.
In attendance at the meeting were representatives of the Oconee County Board of Education, the Board of Commissioners, the chamber and the general public.
The session was held at the Community Center at Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road.
Williams, who was elected in July and has served only in the special session in August on redistricting, acknowledged that he had only a rough idea what issues will be dominant when the House of Representatives convenes.
Cowsert, who has been in the Senate since 2007, said “it is always impossible to predict what is coming down the pipe. Some of the most controversial issues are not on the radar at all.”
Both felt pretty confident, however, that criminal justice reform will be part of the discussion.
Mandatory sentencing laws are putting people in prison who should not be there and who are costing the state a lot of money, Cowsert explained.
The two agreed less on whether the legislature will make much progress on tax reform.
“It sounds like, from what I have been able to gather, that comprehensive tax reform will very possibly not be a top tier item in 2012,” Williams said.
“We’ve got tax reform coming. That’s on the agenda,” Cowsert said.
Both said a big issue the legislature will wrestle with is whether to put the state’s 4 percent sales tax back on groceries.
Williams said if the legislature revisits immigration, he expects the impact of the bill passed last session on agriculture to be a central concern.
A rewrite of the state’s open meetings laws likely will be considered, Williams said.
He said there seems to be a feeling among legislators and other state officials that changes in the existing law are needed “in the light of the current environment we operate in with real-time media and blogs and that type of thing.”
Both Williams and Cowsert are Repubicans.
Williams opened the session by distancing himself from the redistricting plan passed by the General Assembly in the special session that began in August.
Oconee County, which currently falls entirely in the 113th House District he represents, will be divided between two districts if the redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled legislature is approved by the federal government.
Most of the county will be in the new 119th District, while the northeastern precincts of Athens Academy, Malcom Bridge and Bogart will be transferred to the 117th District.
Williams voted with his party on the bill, but he said yesterday that “We were not successful in accomplishing what at lot of you in this room had said you wanted to see.”
Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, who was at yesterday’s session, had been particularly outspoken in asking that Oconee County not be divided between districts.
Williams said it could have been worse. The first map he saw, he said, split the county in half.
Cowsert noted that Oconee County remains entirely in his 46th Senate district.
Cowsert said he planned to take the lead in the legislature in trying to get an amendment to the U.S. constitution before the voters that would force the federal government to balance its budget.
“That will be an exciting issue to work on,” he said.
Twenty-five people attended the 90-minute session.
I have uploaded the full video of the session to the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site and embedded it below. The quality is poor because the visitor seating was opposite the window and I had to shoot into the light. I apologize for that.