VALDOSTA -- With the state's General Assembly session in full swing, local legislators are taking a hard look at Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposals, including a proposed tax hike and a nonbinding referendum on the state flag.

Perdue initially called for cuts in the state's homestead exemption and hikes in taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. He later rescinded the property tax proposal and has said he would consider dropping the "sin tax" hike if legislators can find a way to balance a budget ravaged by declining sales tax collections through spending curbs.

Sen. Tim Golden (D-8) said tax hikes face a tough road -- even in the now-Republican state Senate.

"I obviously wasn't happy with the governor being in office 48 hours and calling for increasing taxes on property owners and increasing taxes on cigarettes," he said. "We need to look at spending cuts first, not a tax increase. I will not support a budget that contains a tax increase."

Golden noted that tobacco taxes would hit area tobacco farmers especially hard in a time when the industry is already struggling.

Rep. Ron Borders agreed that tax hikes are a simplistic tool for coping with budget woes.

"I'm philosophically opposed to an increase in taxes without the opportunity to go through the budget and see where we might have the opportunity to trim some things," he said.

The state's economic woes haven't deterred Borders from pushing the tax abatement policies he promised during his reelection campaign in 2002. He has authored two sales tax holiday bills -- one which would make the tax holiday a permanent fixture with a four-day tax free span in August and another temporary holiday that mirrors the 2002 version with two, two-day holidays during the year.

Borders said he's optimistic one of the two bills will win approval in the General Assembly.

"My position on this all along is that the sales tax holiday, as we have crafted it, has been a revenue-neutral tool," he said. "It does not have the effect of the state losing taxes, and it encourages people to spend a little more money when they get the opportunity to not pay taxes."

Borders conceded he might not get the permanent tax holiday because of budget pressures, but said the money kept in state that would otherwise be lost to Internet or mail order purchases, as well as revenues from border states, would help soften any losses in tax revenues.

Golden and Borders agreed that this might be a lean year for local building projects. Golden said his focus would be on legislation rather than getting area projects in a budget that needs $600-$800 million trimmed away.

Perdue's call for a flag referendum is another hot topic for legislators. Golden said, regardless of the outcome, that a flag vote would do little to unify Georgians as the governor claimed during his State of the State address.

"It's the single most divisive issue out there, without question," he said. "No other issue is as divisive. For anyone to think a referendum is a healing process is wrong. Having said that, I'll keep an open mind and see what (Perdue) proposes. ... I'm troubled by this issue. I love this state. I love these people and the last thing I want to see is divisiveness. The last thing I want to see is the state torn asunder on this issue."

Borders, who took heat from then-Gov. Roy Barnes for abstaining on the flag vote, welcomed a referendum in theory, but wants to see the specifics of Perdue's proposal.

"I don't know how it's going to fly. (Perdue) intimated that he was going to give people a choice on the flag. I can't disagree with that. It's been my statement and position all along. ... I'm sure we'll find out before the session ends. I think the governor is a man of his word and he'll do what he said he would do. That being the case, I think we'll see some sort of referendum on the flag," he said.

Borders and Golden agreed that any flag vote needed to be on the 2004 ballot when turnout would be highest, thereby assuring a true representation of the will of Georgia residents.

A positive result

from the early days of the session were committee assignments. The Lowndes County delegation made out extremely well, with all four members holding spots on either the Appropriations or Ways and Means committees -- the two groups that have the most control over the state's purse strings.

Even Golden, whose party lost control of the Senate, emerged with his most critical appointments intact, avoiding the partisan backlash visited upon other leading Democrats, such as Senate Minority Leader Michael Meyer von Bremen. Golden's independent voting record, and pro-business agenda likely helped his cause.

In the House, the Lowndes delegation lined up early behind new Speaker of the House Terry Coleman (D-Eastman). Democrats who backed Larry Walker's (D-Perry) brief and abortive challenge to Coleman lost out when committee assignments were handed down.

"The House (delegation) did far better than we would have done had the previous speaker (Tom Murphy) remained the speaker. The new speaker is someone we are all real close to and knew real well," Borders said.

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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