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The Republican Party in Georgia, bucking the national trend, held firm to its majority in both houses of the General Assembly in the 2006 elections.
GOP state Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga says his partys leaders have been hammering out their priorities for the 2007 legislative session.
The senator, starting his fourth two-year term on Jan. 8, says he will be working with his GOP colleagues in both chambers to pursue a conservative, pro-business and pro-family agenda.
Specifically, Republicans plan on working toward more tax cuts, chief among them Gov. Sonny Perdues pledge to eliminate the state income tax on senior citizens retirement income.
Georgias highway system is another priority, as road projects on the states 30-year transportation plan are currently estimated to see a funding shortfall exceeding $70 billion.
Regarding both roads and taxes, Mullis is in the thick of issues at the Capitol in Atlanta, having been appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this year and still holding a seat on the budget-crafting Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Mullis recently sat down with The Catoosa County News at the Walker County Civic Center for a question-and-answer session on these and other issues that state lawmakers will face next month.
It seems we can expect a lot of movement on taxes this year. What do Republicans expect to see accomplished in the 2007 session?
Well of course, dont anticipate any new taxes at all in Georgia. Republicans, at least in Georgia, had a great year in 2006, and we want to continue that momentum. As far as tax cuts go, my concern is always that in helping some people you may hurt others, so my perspective is that we should tax as low as possible but tax as fair as possible.
As the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee you will be overseeing one of the biggest pieces of the state budget. What are the options for curing the projected funding shortfall in Georgias long-range construction plans?
There are two main options we face. The first, being touted by the Atlanta-area chambers of commerce, would use a regional SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax), where two or more counties will have to come together and declare their projects and then share the tax revenue. And thats only if the voters approve it what if only one county votes in favor? So I think there are some problems with that scenario.
The second, endorsed by the group Georgians for Better Transportation, is to do away with the motor fuel tax and replace it with a one percent sales tax, which would generate more revenue and tremendously lower the price of gas. I think that could be the way to solve the shortfall problem, but as to whether that is what gets through the General Assembly remains to be seen.
What about transportation in Northwest Georgia?
I hope with my new position to put some money in the budget for planning the future transportation issues of Northwest Georgia. Our growth is rapid now and not likely to slow in the next 20 years, and transportation is a huge part of dealing with a growing population. Better roads, wider roads, public transit, bicycle routes these all need to be part of the mix.
Rail service is growing because of the price of fuel, so Id like to get some more funding for expanding the rail systems in Catoosa and especially Walker County which, without an interstate highway, needs to expand its railroad advantage. Were going to expand the rail system down to Lyerly (in Chattooga County) because theres some potential for business there.
Democrats have pre-filed legislation for next session that would raise the state minimum wage to $7.25 per hour by January 2008. In light of Georgia lawmakers getting both a salary and expense increase this year, dont you think its only fair to raise the tide across the whole sea?
My outlook is that if it negatively affects small businesses and the creation of new jobs, then Ill vote against it. That said, I hope we can find a way to make it palatable for businesses, and if so then I will vote for an increase.
State unemployment claims are up significantly from this same time last year, and some analysts attribute it mostly to housing and manufacturing slowdowns, as it is nationwide. How can Georgias economy stay up against strong national trends like this?
Its true the housing market is in a bit of a slump, but I think theyll be coming out soon from the indications weve seen. But after the November election, if I was in business Id be concerned with the Democrat majority taking over our national politics, because theyve talked about putting all of (President Bushs) tax cuts back on the table. Businesses dont like that, and I think that could have a lot to do with the housing slump, too.
Gov. Perdue proposes eliminating the state income tax for senior retirees. Is that likely to pass this session?
I think it is. We want to encourage more seniors to retire to Georgia.
The governor is more cautious about eliminating the state income tax altogether, which House Republicans are poised to try and do. What do you think about that, being its such a big chunk of revenue?
We have to be careful not to make our state sales tax carry the whole burden, and you cant just slam the door shut on income taxes they would have to be phased out while at the same time increasing revenues through a pro-business growth agenda. Im in favor of doing it if it can be done, but realistically I dont think it will happen any time soon.
The faith-based funding amendment failed last year, largely due to the Democrats not going along because there was no language in the bill to prohibit the use of school vouchers. As Gov. Perdue is pushing hard for this again this year, what will it take to get the required two-thirds majority?
We need to assist the religious sector to help fill a need in the states community services because they can and have been doing it more efficiently. To get the amendment (on a ballot for Georgia voters to approve), well definitely need some of the Democrats agreeing to vote with us. Last year it was a power play with them not coming over, arguing that we were trying to get school vouchers in the back door. Gov. Perdue has said adamantly that it wont be for that, so hopefully well have better ground for them to agree this year.
To help troubled Delta Airlines, last session the legislature gave the company a temporary exemption from their state jet fuel tax. There is now talk of making that permanent. Do you support that?
As I said, I like less taxes but I like fair taxes. Im not for any permanent exemption because I dont think its fair to other airlines. We did something temporarily for Delta to help a company that employs 24,000 people in Georgia, and it has helped. Now were fighting to keep them from being bought out (by US Airways), which would cost a lot of Georgia jobs.
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