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Crawford: Time for lawmakers to get back to work

POSTED: November 21, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The elections have finally been held and it feels like the end of a party that has been going on for a long, long time.

Now that the party is over, it's time for our governor and legislative leadership to get back to work on the state's budget crisis. They have been putting this off for much too long and the longer they delay, the worse it is going to be for all of us taxpayers.

It's been obvious since last July, when Gov. Sonny Perdue was forced to pull $600 million out of the reserve fund to keep the state from ending the fiscal year in the red, that Georgia's finances were getting shaky. Most of the monthly reports from the revenue department since then show that tax collections are tanking because of the economic recession.

As a result, Perdue and the lawmakers are facing a budget deficit that will range somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. That kind of money amounts to more than 10 percent of the state budget.

A budget deficit that large is going to require our political leaders to confront some difficult choices, such as a tax increase to raise additional revenues or harsh spending cuts that put people out on the streets. The latter is already happening in the department of veterans services, which has shut down an assisted living facility for war veterans in Milledgeville and has told the 80 or so residents they will have to find another place to live.

When the situation is getting this dire, this quickly, you can't wait until the middle of January, when the next General Assembly session convenes, to address it. It's time for Perdue, along with the people running the House and Senate, to call a special session and get to work on the problems now.

It's understandable why there was a reluctance to call a special session prior to Election Day.

ncumbent legislators were running for re-election and did not want to upset the folks back in their districts. Self-preservation will always be the first instinct of a political officeholder.

Now that the election is over, however, there's no good reason not to go ahead and convene a session that could start the week after Thanksgiving.

In fact, there's a very good strategic reason for holding a special session at this time. The newly elected legislators won't take office until January. You have a group of incumbents who decided not to seek another term or were defeated for re-election but are still in office until January and would be able to participate in this special session.

These are lawmakers like Ron Forster of Ringgold, Jeff Lewis of Bartow County, Ben Bridges of Cleveland, Bob Holmes of Atlanta, Stan Watson of Decatur, Bob Mumford of Conyers, Barry Fleming of Harlem, Jimmy Lord of Sandersville, Mike Meyer von Bremen of Albany and Regina Thomas of Savannah.

Because they won't be running again for the General Assembly, they don't have to worry about making a decision or taking a position on a sensitive issue that might offend their constituents. They have the kind of freedom politicians rarely have to do the right thing for the right reason without it being against them in a future attack ad.

Hard decisions have to be made that could involve the adoption of new taxes or the elimination of programs that are important to the interest groups they affect. It will be easier for the legislative leadership to assemble the votes necessary for these tough decisions if they have a group of lawmakers who aren't going to be bothered by possible voter retribution.

There are other pressing issues directly affected by the budget crisis that could also be handled during a special session. Legislators are still under the gun to find a permanent funding source so that our disgracefully bad network of trauma care hospitals can be upgraded. The Department of Transportation has a $450 million shortfall that will require the cancellation of dozens of road projects or the layoffs of hundreds of DOT employees.

Our political leadership could make a real start on addressing these problems before it gets too late to do anything about them, but they need to do it now. It's time to get down to work.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report on state politics and government . His column appears Thursdays.



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