I was sitting at my desk the other day when the latest report from Georgia's Department of Audits landed in my email inbox.
State auditors regularly review the activities of government agencies and assess how effectively they are carrying out their duties. This report, which involved the Professional Standards Commission that handles the licensing of public school teachers, caught my eye because of an interesting trend that auditors discovered.
It was just a few years ago that education officials were warning the state would one day face teacher shortages numbering in the thousands because of Georgia's growing population.
That did not happen, auditors learned, and they stated in their report: "In fact, the PSC officials indicate that currently a surplus of new K-12 teachers exists for most subject areas."
The reason for this turnaround was the great recession that crashed the economy three years ago and still affects us today.
The recession reduced state revenues and forced everyone to cut spending. This decreased the number of teaching positions funded by local school systems and prompted legislators to relax class size restrictions, which further reduced the number of teachers needed. The bad economy also motivated many veteran teachers to delay their retirements, which again cut back on the need for new teachers.
The spending cuts that were forced upon school systems were also forced upon agencies all across state government. In addition to reducing the money spent on teachers, the economic crunch cut state spending in all areas, giving conservatives what they have long dreamed of: a smaller government.
You only have to look at the budget the legislature passes to see how quickly this has happened.
In April 2008, the General Assembly adopted a state budget for fiscal year 2009 that totaled $21.2 billion. It was the largest budget ever approved for state government at the time.
In the summer of 2008, just as fiscal year 2009 was beginning, the bubble popped for the real estate and construction industries and financial failures started ripping through the financial institutions of Wall Street. That sparked the worse recession this country has endured since the 1930s.
Gov. Sonny Perdue and the General Assembly quickly started hacking away at that record budget they had enacted just a few months earlier and the hacking hasn't stopped yet.
By April 2010, just two years after they passed a state budget of $21.2 billion, Georgia lawmakers adopted a budget that amounted to just $17.8 billion. In the span of 24 months, the level of approved state spending had decreased by 19 percent. Any way you look at it, that's a significant spending cut.
Georgia is not alone. Every other state and local government has had to confront similar situations because of reductions in tax revenues. These governments have had to spend less and become smaller as the amount of money available from tax revenues has decreased. Talk to your county commissioners or local school board members and they will confirm what I'm saying.
For all the bickering that's going on between Republicans and Democrats in Washington over budgets and spending, federal tax payments are at historically low levels as well. One of the best ways to make historic comparisons of tax burdens is to analyze taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product. Out of all the dollars generated through the sale of goods and services in our economy, what percentage of those dollars has gone to pay federal taxes?
In both 2009 and 2010, according to the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution, the percentage of America's gross domestic product that went for federal taxes was 14.9 percent. That was the lowest level of tax payments since 1950, when they amounted to 14.4 percent of the gross domestic product.
While the folks in the tea party movement complain about government spending and gripe that they're being "taxed to death," they're really not. State and local governments today are spending much less than they were a few years ago. The percentage of our economic output that is eaten up for federal tax purposes is lower than it's been in more than 60 years.
If I were a tea party member, I'd be declaring victory right about now.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.