Budget woes top '09 story for Georgia
by Greg Bluestein
Associated Press Writer
December 26, 2009 01:00 AM | 464 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Georgia grappled with the worst budget shortfall in its history as the economic crisis rippled through the nation, forcing legislators to make tough decisions that furloughed thousands of public school teachers and state employees and cut massive chunks out of the state’s annual spending plan.

Georgia’s budget crisis was the state’s top news story of 2009, according to state editors and news directors voting in The Associated Press’ annual survey.

Other stories high on most lists included House Speaker Glenn Richardson's surprising resignation, the deadly nationwide salmonella outbreak that stemmed from a southwest Georgia peanut processing plant and a federal judge's ruling that could limit Atlanta's withdrawals from its main water supply.

But Georgia's budget dilemma was the top choice for most of the Georgia AP members who participated in the news cooperative's survey.

Georgia lawmakers spent most of the 40-day legislative session struggling to strike a deal on an $18.6 billion spending blueprint that made deep cuts to most state agencies. The cuts likely would have been worse if not for federal stimulus dollars that helped pay for Medicaid, the health program for the poor.

The cuts kept coming, as Gov. Sonny Perdue slashed another $900 million from the state budget in July, a move that required state employees to take at least three furlough days and almost led to a legal showdown when judicial leaders complained that the cuts could shut down the legal system.

The new year isn't expected to bring much relief: The challenging task of balancing the state's budget already seems like a daunting prospect.

The resignation of the state's first Republican House speaker in generations was the No. 2 story of the year. Richardson at first won sympathy from even his political enemies when he revealed in November that he attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills.

But then his ex-wife went on TV and accused him of having "a full-out affair" with a lobbyist while they were still married. He delivered a tearful goodbye to his caucus, shouldering the blame for the chamber's struggles at a meeting where his rival David Ralston was elected to succeed him.

The nationwide salmonella outbreak notched the survey's No. 3 spot. Nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses were linked to the outbreak, which was traced in January to a southwest Georgia peanut processing plant where FDA inspectors found roaches, mold and a leaky roof.

The outbreak led to one of the largest product recalls ever, sparked more than a dozen lawsuits and a criminal probe. It also prompted renewed scrutiny of the nation's food safety laws and inspired Georgia legislators to give state agricultural inspectors unprecedented new powers to detect contamination earlier.

The No. 4 story was the torrential September downpour that flooded much of metro Atlanta. It left neighborhoods, schools and even sections of roller coasters submerged in several feet of water. The flooding and rains were blamed for nine deaths in Georgia and Alabama and more than $250 million in property damage.

The fifth-ranked story was a shooting rampage that terrified the University of Georgia when marketing professor George Zinkhan shot his wife and two other people at a gathering of a community theater group. Zinkhan then disappeared and his body was found two weeks later in a shallow grave he apparently dug before shooting himself in the head.

The No. 6 story was a mix of good and bad news about Georgia's precarious water situation.

The drought that gripped the region for more than two years was declared over amid heavy rainfall, but Georgia's long-running legal battle with its neighbors heated up. That's because a federal judge threatened to cut Atlanta's drinking water withdrawals from Lake Lanier within three years if a new deal isn't reached between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Atlanta's competitive mayoral election, which earned national attention, landed the seventh-ranked position. City Councilwoman Mary Norwood sought to become the city's first white mayor in a generation, but she was defeated by former state Sen. Kasim Reed in a razor-thin runoff.

The No. 8 story was a state audit that showed cheating on state math tests at four elementary schools.

It led authorities to pursue criminal charges against two DeKalb County school administrators and a handful of educators lost their state teaching licenses. Districts across Georgia scrambled to tighten rules for administering standardized tests in the wake of the audit.

Perdue's call for thousands of public school teachers across Georgia to take three unpaid furlough days took the ninth spot. Teachers groups were disappointed by the governor's move, but Perdue said he called for furloughs rather than pay cuts because he wanted to show the move was temporary.

The conviction and sentencing of two Georgia men on terrorism charges was the year's tenth-ranked story.

Prosecutors said Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee sent videotapes of U.S. landmarks overseas and plotted to support "violent jihad," and both men countered it was just boastful chatter. The two were each sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

Stories close to making the list included the election of the Rev. Bernice King as the first woman to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the revelation that Georgia was directing homeless sex offenders to live in a makeshift tent city behind a suburban Atlanta office park and the slayings of eight people in a Brunswick mobile home park.
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