The 2011 Legislative Session Begins

January 28, 2011

The People’s Business

By President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams
January 28, 2011

Despite an icy start to this year’s Legislative Session, the Georgia General Assembly has hit the ground running. This year we welcome a new governor, who I look forward to working with as the legislature and executive branch develop a cooperative plan for the future of Georgia. Over the next few months, we’ll develop a climate that will generate job growth, strengthen Georgia’s competitiveness and use our financial resources effectively.

At the start of this session, we face a nearly $2 billion budget hole. The economy is slowly working its way towards recovery, but balancing the state budget remains an increasingly arduous task. During these tough economic times, the legislature has cut spending to require government to live within its means. We are spending $3.6 billion less in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget than we were in 2009. Growth in education, Regents, technical schools and Medicaid is expected to consume the majority of the 4 to 5 percent revenue growth that economists are projecting this year.

Conservative leadership at the Capitol is committed to responsible spending and finding efficiencies at all levels of state government. In addition to a balanced budget, we’ll also look at revamping Georgia’s tax structure to increase our state’s competitiveness, grow business and increase jobs. The Special Council on Tax Fairness for Georgians was established during the 2010 Session and has been working throughout the year to overhaul the state’s current revenue structure. The council has examined how best to structure the tax code in order to stimulate business and job growth, while keeping in mind how Georgia’s taxes compare to other states. A joint committee will study the council’s recommendations and draft legislation that utilizes some of their suggestions.

This year, I plan to examine the possibility of privatizing health care in state prisons. This could go a long way to cutting waste and saving taxpayer dollars. Georgia operates the fifth-largest prison system in the nation, with inmate health care expenditures totaling $217 million in 2009. A 2004 report by the Council of State Governments notes the correlation between rising prison costs and the number of states that have turned to private health care providers to save money. Between 1997 and 2000, another 22 states privatized a portion or all of their inmate health care, totaling 34 states. Florida showed a savings of $12.5 million for inmate health care in the first half of the 2008-09 Fiscal Year as a result of cost-saving measures that included outsourcing health care services.

Georgia, among many states, faces another exorbitant health care cost due to rampant Medicare fraud. Each year, Medicare fraud costs U.S. taxpayers $60 billion. A significant portion of this fraud is carried out through Medicare card “sharing,” where card holders allow others to use the card to obtain health care services. To crack down on card sharing, the legislature will consider requiring biometric authentication as a form of identity access management. Biometrics uses fingerprint scanning to verify the identity of the cardholder. Replacing the current system of card or paper identification, an electronic system could drastically cut down on those who abuse the system by running up medical expenses on another’s card.

Along with a new governor and a slew of freshman legislators, Georgia will welcome a new State School Superintendent this year. Dr. John Barge is a career educator and has worked at all levels of the education system. As a member of his transition team, I have enjoyed working with Dr. Barge to help set the vision for Georgia’s pubic schools as he prepares to become Georgia’s 21st school superintendent. In higher education, we will likely see some structural changes to the HOPE scholarship this year, which is suffering under increased student population and higher tuition rates. We’ll work to bring greater transparency to the organization and examine how money can best be allocated.
I look forward to continuing my service on behalf of my constituents in the 19th Senate District this session. Although we face significant challenges this year, I am confident that we will find the solutions to secure a prosperous future for Georgia.

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Sen. Tommie Williams serves as President Pro Tempore. He represents the 19th Senate District, which includes Appling, Jeff Davis, Long, Montgomery, Toombs, Wayne, and Wheeler counties and a portion of Liberty and Tattnall counties. He can be reached at 404.656.0089 or by email at tommie.williams@senate.ga.gov.