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Justice Department hangs in the balance

The State budget writers received more bad news this week. The Revenue Department announced that February collections declined by almost 10%. In dollars, they decreased by $62,197,000. Solutions are hard to find. Cut services or raise revenues? Here are three examples of proposals.

In a press release issued on March 10, one state senator is taking serious aim at the Judicial System to save money in the state budget. Under SB 485 by Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, the number of superior court judges in certain circuits in the State of Georgia would be decreased by 19. In the Atlanta Circuit alone, 4 judicial positions would be cut. Sen. Seabaugh states in the press release that this could save $13-$14 million in the state budget. As justification, he cited a study which states that superior court judges average a workload of 3200 cases per year. He states he is targeting judgeships which average 1200 cases per year. You may be thinking that this does not affect you. Well you would be very wrong. The Dougherty Circuit is on the chopping block. The senator proposes to reduce the number of Judges from 3 to 2. The nearby Southern Circuit made up of 5 counties where cities such as Valdosta and Thomasville are located would also face a reduction from 5 to 4 judges. Only 1200 cases per year is the justification to cut the number of judges. This is 100 per month. These are numbers on a sheet of paper. What they may not reveal is the complexity of a given case pending before a Judge. Do the numbers consider that sometimes a trial in a complex case may take a week or longer to complete? Ask the lawyer you know from your neighborhood; your Sunday School class or even the one who may represent you, the impact this will have. Then ask if you have to take part in the Judicial process and these cuts go through, will your case take longer and drag on to the point that the remedy you seek is meaningless? If this bill goes through, will a person accused of a serious crime like child molestation be released because the system cannot meet a speedy trial demand due to not having enough judges to try the cases in a timely manner? These are tough questions. Evaluate it for yourself to see if this is cutting "Government Waste" or not.

In a different approach to deal with some of the shortfalls in the budget, HB 67 would rescind the exemption from sales and use tax on "eligible food and beverages". Some know this as the grocery sales tax exemption. Rep. Chuck Sims introduced the legislation in 2009 and, at that time, it would be effective for two years. This seemed to be an effort to temporarily raise substantial revenue during the serious recession the State is facing. An amendment to the bill has taken place and now, if passed, it would be effective in taxable years beginning on or after January 1, 2010. Various reports from around the state suggest this could bring in several hundred million in revenues per year.

Another approach is found in HB 39 by Reps. Stephens, Sellier and Gardner among others. It would raise the tax on cigarettes from 37 cents per pack to $1.37. On smokeless tobacco the tax would go from 10 percent of the wholesale price to 25 percent of the wholesale price. Various reports I have read suggest this could bring in several hundred million dollars as well. Many advocates of the legislation also point to studies in regard to health hazards associated with tobacco use and the severe impact those hazards have on healthcare costs. They suggest a higher tax would not only raise revenue but deter the use of the tobacco products and, in turn, save on healthcare costs on some patients which, are being picked up by taxpayers.

Our state motto is Wisdom, Justice and Moderation. Will the justice part take a serious hit through cuts? Will legislators raise revenues with increased taxes on tobacco or groceries to meet the shortfall? The wisdom part is needed more than ever.

Michael Meyer von Bremen is an Albany attorney and a former state senator who represented the 12th Senate District, which includes Albany, for a decade. He writes a column periodically during the legislative session on issues facing the General Assembly.