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Senate’s budget writer says state’s hole is deeper than predicted

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, warned Monday that the state’s budget hole for next fiscal year is closer to $2 billion than to the $1 billion that’s been discussed.

Hill was in Athens with other lawmakers for a pre-legislative session conference and spoke to WABE’s Denis O’Hayer, the local host of “All Things Considered.” You can hear the entire interview on WABE’s website.

In the the interview, Hill acknowledged that the state’s budget hole for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, is at about $2 billion and drops to $1.3 billion once you consider the loss of one-time funding or federal cash as well an expected round of cuts to state agencies.

Despite the positive news that state revenues are growing, Hill said it’s not enough.

“The growth rate that the economists tell us we can expect is not high enough to make up for the tremendous hole we have,” Hill told O’Hayer.

O’Hayer asked the next logical question: Where does the money come from? Could it be …

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Yet another Democrat jumps ship for GOP majority

State Rep. Bubber Epps of Dry Branch left the Democratic Party for the ruling GOP, House officials said Monday.

Epps told the Republican caucus meeting in Athens that he was officially switching parties.

Epps’ move gives the GOP 113 current seats in the House, with two vacancies in districts last served by a Republican, meaning that come February the GOP caucus could be 115. Epps is the seventh Democrat to switch parties since the Nov. 2 election.

Epps represents District 140 which includes parts of Bibb, Jones, Twiggs and Wilkinson counties.

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State posts positive tax collection figures in November

Georgia’s revenue picture has improved for a sixth straight month, with encouraging signs popping up just before Christmas, new state records show.

Gov. Sonny Perdue’s office released figures Monday that show November revenue collections were more than $1.26 billion, compared with $1.18 billion in November 2009, an increase of 6.7 percent.

For the 2011 fiscal year, which began July 1, collections are up by 7.4 percent over the same five months of last year. The state budget for fiscal 2011 was predicated on a 4 percent growth in tax collections.

“All in all, it is generally good news,” state fiscal economist Kenneth Heaghney said. “Obviously, we still have a very long way to get back to where we were at the peak prior to this recession. But at least we are moving forward and generally improving. The basic report is very positive. But the issue is: Can we sustain that for the full fiscal year?”

Corporate income taxes posted exceptional figures, growing by $4.1 …

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State approves spending $28.7 million for Oaky Woods land

The State Properties Commission on Monday unanimously approved spending $28.7 million in taxpayer money on 10,015 acres of Oaky Woods wilderness in Middle Georgia.

The panel’s vote follows last week’s 11-6 decision by the Georgia Natural Resources Board to buy the land from Oaky Woods Properties LLC.

Some Natural Resources Board members said the price is too high at $2,874 per acre. In comparison, Oaky Woods Properties bought it for $1,600 an acre.

Proponents, however, say the state needs to protect the tract from developers. It is home to black bears, endangered plant species and unique prairies and the land is popular among campers, fishermen and bird watchers.

Oaky Woods Properties had planned to develop the tract with shops, offices and up to 35,000 homes before the real estate market plummeted.

“Since 2003, the state has conserved over 200,000 acres through purchases, donations and easements,” Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said in a prepared …

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Lawmakers vote to cancel their own cost-of-living adjustment

Athens – State lawmakers voted this morning to cancel a scheduled pay increase for members of the General Assembly for at least a year.

The Legislative Services Committee, a special joint panel of members of the House and Senate and key staff, voted unanimously to put off the cost of living adjustment until at least Dec. 31, 2011.

Lawmakers are gathered here at the University of Georgia for a three-day conference in advance of the beginning of the next legislative session on Jan. 10.

The Legislative Services Committee, chaired by Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, sets financial policy for the General Assembly and its employees and agrees to contracts with outside agencies.

Ralston said the motion to cancel the pay raise was “very appropriate.”

Members of the General Assembly earn a base salary of $17,342, in addition to $173 a day for expenses when on official business, including days in session and for committee work. Top lawmakers, including the House speaker …

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Gov.-elect Deal names House floor leaders

Reps. Amy Carter, R-Valdosta, Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, and Hank Huckaby, R-Watkinsville, will be Gov.-elect Nathan Deal’s floor leaders in the House. ;

The three will serve as liaisons between Deal’s office and the House and work to advance Deal’s legislative priorities.

Deal also announced Friday that Travis Sakrison, the deputy chief DeKalb County district attorney, will held Georgia’s Public Defenders Standards Council, replacing former Rep. Rob Teilhet, D-Smyrna, whom outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed following November’s election.

Deal previously announced that Sens. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, Bill Jackson, R-Appling, and Jim Butterworth, R-Clarksville, would serve as his floor leaders in the Senate.

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Deal to celebrate inaugural with gala at Philips

Gov.-elect Nathan Deal on Friday announced that his swearing in at the state Capitol will be followed by an invitation-only gala at Philips Arena.

Deal will be sworn in at 2 p.m. Jan. 10 following a prayer service at Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta. The gala, which will be funded by private contributions, will begin at 7:30 p.m.

The weekend of events begins Saturday, Jan. 8, with a day of service events for  non-profit agencies across Georgia, including several in Metro Atlanta. More details on the service projects are available at Deal’s inauguration website.

The inaugural committee said Friday that the gala will feature musical acts from Georgia as well as a “nationally known headliner” who was not named.

“Georgia is home to some of the nation’s best talent in government, business and entertainment,”  Jay Morgan, co-chair of the inaugural committee, said in a statement. “The inaugural gala will celebrate it all.”

The event honors the new governor and the …

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Georgia congressmen seek meeting with ICE chief

Still steaming over the pace of a federal program targeting illegal immigration, seven Republican congressmen from Georgia have invited the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a meeting on Capitol Hill.

At issue is how the federal government is rolling out a fingerprint-sharing program aimed at deporting violent illegal immigrants. The congressmen have been pushing for the “Secure Communities” program to go statewide faster in Georgia. It is operating in only nine of the state’s 159 counties now.

ICE officials have indicated they can’t move faster with it here because of limited manpower and other resources. But the AJC reported last month that Hawaii and West Virginia are two of more than two dozen states that have fewer illegal immigrants than Georgia but are still getting plugged into the $200 million program, some at a faster pace.

“Our question to you now is simple,” Rep. Phil Gingrey, of Marietta, and six other Republican congressmen wrote …

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Updated: Two black Democrats bolt party for GOP

Two African-American Democrats on Thursday announced that they were joining the Republican Party.

Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell and former state executive committee member Andre Walker said the Democratic Party had grown too liberal and they are finding a new home with the Republicans.

The state GOP touted Bell as the first black elected official in modern times in Georgia to leave the Democrats for the GOP. But that distinction belongs to former state Sen. Roy Allen of Savannah, who joined the Republican Party in 1994.

Bell was introduced as a Republican at a news conference Thursday at party headquarters.

“My district is pretty Republican as it is,” Bell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “My wife and I have been thinking about this for six months.”

He said they are both conservative “and the Democratic Party has been our home. The party had conservatives and liberals both in the party. [But] this election showed us the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is …

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Georgia Farm Bureau: immigration is a federal issue

The Georgia Farm Bureau has weighed in on the heated debate over what to do about illegal immigration in the state, saying “it is a federal issue, not a state or local issue.”

Meeting at their annual convention on Jekyll Island Tuesday, delegates to the bureau adopted a policy that says the organization opposes “any immigration law that discriminates against the farm worker and puts the farmers of Georgia at a disadvantage to farmers in other states.”

The policy also says “agricultural interests must be considered when immigration legislation is debated.” Georgia’s $65 billion agricultural industry relies heavily on migrant workers.

“We think immigration is a federal issue, and it needs a federal solution,” Jon Huffmaster, the Farm Bureau’s legislative director told the Associated Press. “And we think a patchwork of state laws could cause more problems than it solves.”

The bureau – which represents nearly 400,000 families — staked out its position as …

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