Gov. Nathan Deal’s office released his state budget for fiscal year 2016 late last week, and if you work your way through the numbers in the document you will see a significant turning point in recent state history.
During the 2008 General Assembly session, lawmakers passed what was then Georgia’s largest budget ever, $21.1 billion in state funds. Later that year, the housing and construction industries collapsed, banks started failing across the country, and a meltdown in the financial markets nearly crashed the economy.
The Great Recession had begun, which blew a gaping hole in tax collections and forced Georgia to start cutting back that $21 billion budget until spending dropped to about $17 billion a year. State revenues eventually recovered as the economy came out of its tailspin, but it was a very slow process.
The budget Deal just released shows expenditures of nearly $21.8 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, which would be the first time the budget total has exceeded what legislators adopted back in the winter of 2008.
It was a recession that started late in the second term of President George W. Bush; the state has finally recovered from it midway through the second term of President Barack Obama. That is one long economic downturn.
You can tell what’s really important to a governing body by looking at how it chooses to spend its money. What can we deduce, then, from the budget submitted by the governor?
He has acknowledged it might be a good thing to increase the pay of state employees who went without a salary hike for several years during the economic downturn. The budget would give most employees a 1 percent pay raise. That doesn’t come close to matching the $25,000 raise for appellate court judges and the $15,000 salary increase for Superior Court judges that is also in the budget, but it’s a start.
There is also better news for the state’s public schools. For years, legislators have been balancing the budget by reducing the state’s formula funding to local school systems. These are called “austerity cuts,” and they reduced funding to public schools by more than $1 billion a year.
During the economic downturn, local school boards generally had to make up for these funding reductions through a combination of higher property taxes, teacher furloughs or the deletion of instructional days from the school calendar.
Deal and the legislature restored $314 million of those austerity cuts in the current budget and the governor wants to put back another $280 million in the upcoming budget. That would not entirely eliminate the funding shortfall to local schools, but it would reduce it to the level of $466 million, which is an improvement.
Deal put money in the budget to hire more case workers for child welfare cases and more staffers for the perennially underfunded state ethics commission, and those are both commendable actions.
The education of the next generation of Georgia’s children is an important goal, of course, but the really pressing objective for state officials, judging from what’s in the budget, is to make sure Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank is happy.
During the final days of last year’s session, lawmakers put $17 million in the budget to pay for construction of a parking deck near the retractable-roof stadium being built for Blank. This is on top of the more than $450 million in tax funds to be spent over the next 30 years to pay for construction and maintenance of the facility.
In the latest budget, Deal has set aside another $23 million to finish the construction work on the parking deck. That’s $40 million combined in the current and upcoming budgets.
For a billionaire like the Falcons owner, $40 million is pocket change. He could easily afford to pay for his own parking deck.
A distressed school board member in a rural county who’s struggling to avoid laying off teachers or closing down schools for part of the year might think there were better ways to spend that $40 million in the budget.
But keep in mind, this is Georgia. We may argue about the need to spend more money on our schools, but we love our football.
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report.