Budget, water issues loom

There’s little doubt as to what the General Assembly’s biggest challenge will be when it returns in January.

In a meeting last week with The Albany Herald Editorial Board, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston didn’t hesitate when asked what the No. 1 issue will be for the 2012 Legislature.

The budget.

While the state has had a streak of year-to-year increases in revenues for the past several months, the increases are only getting the state to where it was before the recession struck and plummeted government income. The numbers are better, but they’re improvements over numbers that were horrendous.

And that means legislators will again have hard decisions to make on spending.

“In this economic cycle, we’re going to have one or two more budget cycles that are going to be challenging,” Ralston said, noting the modest increases in revenues. “The budget is always the only job we have to do and the most important thing we have to do.”

One important job that is behind legislators — unless there is a problem in the federal approval process — is the redistricting of Georgia’s congressional and state legislative districts. Ralston said he was pleased with the results, noting that the maps were approved in record time during the special session conducted in August.

“We just came through the shortest redistricting session in the history of the state,” he said, describing the process as orderly, respectful and civil.

Democrats in Georgia have labeled it much differently, saying the Republican-led Legislature drew districts designed to place the Democratic Party at a disadvantage, particularly in its ability to attract white male candidates.

The speaker suggested that the Democrats look closer to home. Redistricting, he said, had nothing to do with seven white Democrats walking across the aisle to join the Republican Party. “They need to go look into the mirror,” he said. “They have hung a sign on the door saying that moderates are not welcome and people who are not very liberal are not welcome.”

The criticism has been “more than a little ironic,” he said, in light of the 2001 redistricting maps drawn by Democrats that were redrawn by the court. “We had a model of what not to do,” he said, adding that 10-12 public meetings around the state were conducted on the process before the special session.

Ralston predicted the Republicans’ maps will pass muster with the federal courts. Under the Voting Rights Act, Georgia is one of the states that has to have any election changes cleared by either the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. Georgia officials have asked the D.C. court to approve the maps drawn in August.

On water issues, Ralston said he is hopeful that “this administration under Gov. Deal will bring new vigor to those negotiations.”

Georgia was at a great disadvantage in its decades-old argument with Alabama and Florida over water until the courts overturned a federal judge’s ruling that gave the states three years to work out a deal before he turned off the use of Lake Lanier by most of metro Atlanta. While negotiations have worked better with one of Georgia’s neighbors than with the other, Ralston said enough progress has been made so that it is “certainly within the realm of possibility that we’re going to get an agreement at some point.”

“I know this governor (Deal) is committed to working out an agreement,” he said.

And on that count, we hope the speaker is right. It’s past time that a treaty was reached in this verbal and legal water war between the states.