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Lawmakers break to tackle $1B budget hole

ATLANTA -- Georgia legislators voted Thursday to take a two-week break as they scramble to fill what is shaping up to be another huge hole in the state's already slimmed-down budget.

With tax collections continuing to slide, legislators will take a break from passing bills in the House and the Senate. Instead, budget writers will huddle to address another $1 billion-plus budget shortfall.

Legislators said they were caught off guard by yet another dismal revenue report last month. There had been hopes that January would break a slump in tax collections. Instead, they dipped 8.7 percent, the 14th straight month revenues have declined.

Some lawmakers grumbled that the forecast for the fiscal year that begins July 1 could be even bleaker than originally thought.

"I think $1 billion may be on the low side," state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said Thursday o revenue growth, which some now say may be far too optimistic.

The governor balanced the budget by proposing a pair of unpopular proposals: a tax on hospitals and health plans and siphoning money from the state's environmental loan fund.

Republican legislators have been cool to both plans, particularly the hospital fee. Perdue has said it's needed to avoid deep cuts to Medicaid. But many of the state's ruling Republicans have pledged to balance the budget without hiking taxes.

Together the two proposals are expected to bring in roughly $650 million. If legislators reject the proposals they either have to make cuts in that amount or find additional revenue to fill the hole.

Georgia is required by law to balance its budget.

In addition, federal stimulus dollars for Medicaid are set to dry up midway through the year. Unless Congress delivers additional money from Washington, that will be a hit of some $380 million.

House and Senate budget writers will meet together next week to tackle the budget, a first at the Capitol -- where the two chambers typically craft budget plans separately and then hammer out their differences.

"We have a difficult, difficult budget task ahead of us," House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said.

House Speaker David Ralston said that Appropriations and only three other committees -- Transportation, Natural Resources and Ways and Means -- are authorized to meet during the next two weeks. No other members are authorized to receive the $173 per diem for legislative work days, Ralston said.

NO LOBBYISTS ALLOWED

House Speaker David Ralston issued a stern reminder to legislators: no registered lobbyists allowed on the House floor.

Ralston said a lobbyist had recently been admitted to the chamber, which violates House rules while legislators are meeting. Ralston said he would take a "very dim view" of any lawmaker who brings a lobbyist onto the House floor or in the chamber's anteroom.

The House recently loosened floor access rules to allow the media back on the House floor. Ralston noted that did not apply to lobbyists.

Ethics and lobbying have been hot topics this legislative session.

Ralston became speaker in January after his predecessor, Glenn Richardson, was forced to step down amid allegations of an affair with a utility lobbyist.

EXECUTION DELAYED

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has delayed next week's execution of Melbert Ray Ford because a spot on the five-member clemency panel hasn't been filled.

Ford was set to die by lethal injection on Feb. 23 for killing his former girlfriend and another woman in a 1986 robbery at the Newton County grocery store. On Thursday, the pardon board issued a 90-day stay.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has yet to name a replacement for Milton E. "Buddy" Nix, whose term expired at the end of 2009. Officials at the pardons board say the courts have previously held that a clemency consideration by a board of four members in a death case violates the state constitution. The court ordered the execution stayed until a fifth member was appointed.

A spokesman for Perdue said they were in the process of filling the vacancy.