When state Sen. Steve Henson first took office in 1991, the state’s legislative sessions typically concluded by St. Patrick’s Day. Twenty years later that condensed legislative schedule is a distant memory.
“Because of the budget we didn’t get out until mid-April,” said Henson, D-Tucker, in a town hall meeting at on Monday night.
With a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall to address, the Georgia legislature needed as much time as possible to conduct its business during the recently concluded legislative session. And all of the issues breached during the busy session were fair game Monday night when about 40 area residents joined veteran legislator Henson and freshman state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, for a legislative debriefing at Lakeside High.
Henson opened the evening with a sobering overview of the state’s financial struggles. He said that the economic downturn had reduced the state’s revenues from $22 billion to $18 billion, forcing state legislators to enact massive spending cuts. He added that education funding suffered the brunt of the reduction in spending.
Henson singled out the changes made to Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship as an example of such cuts in education expenditures. Previously, high school students who maintained a minimum 3.0 GPA were guaranteed a full ride to state colleges. Now, most of these students will see their tuition coverage drop to 90 percent. Only students with a minimum of a 3.7 GPA and 1200 SAT score will receive full scholarships.
Holcomb joined Henson in voting against the changes to HOPE.
“Cutting education year after year won’t help Georgia keep the jobs we have and remain competitive,” he said.
Henson also focused on the Georgia Special Council on Tax Reform’s proposal to
reduce the state’s income taxes in return for higher consumption-based taxes. He
said the plan amounted to a tax increase on low- and middle-income families and indicated that he was pleased it never came to a vote.
“I’m proud we stopped the tax commission’s report,” Henson said.
Holcomb emphasized his dissatisfaction with the state’s recently passed immigration bill. The law, modeled after a similar piece of legislation in Arizona, allows state and local law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants.
“I think what Arizona has done is a race to the bottom,” he said. “We tried to copy it.”
Holcomb went on to express his opposition to a bill passed by the legislature that
reduced the Dekalb County Board of Education from nine to seven seats. He said he preferred a different proposal that would have allowed voters to decide the board's size through a referendum, and he said the new law was flawed because it allowed the governor to independently remove school board members.
“There needs to be some respect for the will of the voters,” he said.
After their remarks, Holcomb and Henson took questions from crowd on issues
ranging from new regulations on the removal of trees by billboard companies to tax cuts for seniors. As the crowd converged on the exit, Holcomb reflected on the challenges of his first legislative session.
“I’d rather start my career in a harder session,” he said. “If everything’s great, what can you really contribute?”