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More Cuts Coming

The Georgia legislature has cut $4 billion from the state budget in the past four years, and more cuts are on the way, House Speaker David Ralston told University of Georgia College Republicans Wednesday night.

While tax revenue is slowly rising as Georgia emerges from a recession, a spike in the number of people signing up for Medicaid means the state is facing a $400 million shortfall that could go higher if “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act, is fully implemented, Ralston said. “We’re looking again at having to do some tough and sometimes unpopular things to keep this state afloat,” he said.

After passing a modest tax reform package—including ending taxes on energy for manufacturers and taxing more Internet sales—during this year’s session, the legislature will take another look at taxes next year, Ralston said. A tax reform commission that recommended reforms “brought back some very bold proposals” including charging sales taxes on groceries and raising the cigarette tax 60 cents a pack. “Bold proposals don’t always pass the General Assembly overnight,” Ralston said.

Other issues Ralston expects the House to tackle may sound familiar: ethics, transportation and education.

On ethics, “we’re going to pass something out of the House the first week of the session and let the Senate deal with it,” he said. Some senators have proposed a $100 cap on gifts from lobbyists, but it’s gone nowhere the past two sessions. Ralston called the cap “an incredibly misguided gimmick,” questioning why a $99 meal is OK but a $101 is not. He said he’d prefer a total ban on lobbyists’ gifts.

After voters in most parts of the state—including Athens and metro Atlanta—rejected referendums to raise sales taxes for transportation projects, lawmakers will start from scratch on transportation funding in 2013, Ralston said. “Some of the tea party groups kept saying we had a Plan B,” he said. “I kept asking what it was, because I didn’t know anything about it. We didn’t have a secret Plan B.”

One audience member asked why Ralston isn’t supporting Carter Kessler, the Republican candidate for an Athens House seat. “I’m not really familiar with his campaign, except I saw (Tuesday) where he said the leadership in Georgia is crooked,” Ralston said. “That might have something to do with it… I guess it’d be hard to get people excited helping you if you call them crooked.”

But Ralston said he’ll welcome Regina Quick, the Republican who ousted state Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, and has said she won’t carry Ralston’s water. He said he backed McKillip because he always supports Republican incumbents. “We’re going to welcome her and respect the decision the voters have made… and work with her to be successful,” he said.