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Our Views: A modest agenda
Deals legislative goals for 2013 are in line with the reality of a struggling state budget
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

Sometimes, political leaders succeed not by performing great feats, but by knowing their limitations and working within them.

That’s because times that occasionally call for bold action and sweeping reform sometimes can give way to periods that require more restraint and patience.

Such is the case in 2013 for Georgia at the start of a legislative session when state leaders find themselves with a slew of challenges but lack the resources to throw money at them as a solution.

Which is why Gov. Nathan Deal laid out a legislative agenda in his State of the State address last week that takes on a few key initiatives but doesn’t try to bite off a big chunk of change while the state’s budget remains a bear to balance.

Though state tax revenues ticked up at the end of the year, forecasters believe the state’s intake of money will not be sufficient to withstand increased spending in the year to come. That means another year of hard budget cuts lies ahead.

Keep in mind that, unlike the drunken sailors in Washington, Georgia leaders don’t have the luxury of running up spending projects on a credit card and shuffling off a Mount Everest of debt to generations unborn. The state constitution requires a balanced budget, meaning the government can only spend as much as it takes in. And thank goodness for it; if we had the same at the federal level, we might not know how many times a trillion dollar bills can wind around the globe.

With that reality before him, Deal chose his priorities carefully. In taking on the state’s biggest immediate challenges with a limited treasury, he proposed the following:

 On education, the governor vowed to boost funding for the HOPE scholarship and a full 180-day calendar for pre-kindergarten, fueled by increased revenues from the state lottery. His goal is to increase school spending to meet growing enrollment by cutting spending elsewhere.

As we stated earlier, Georgia cannot skimp on education and hope to attract new industries or fill its workforce needs effectively. There are government services we can live without or cut back on; schools are not among them.

As state revenues grow, teachers’ cost-of-living pay increases should be restored or we might lost some of our best educators to other states or professions.

• Deal wants to continue to boost economic development, which has kept the state’s economy recovering and the unemployment rate dropping since the recession’s peak. Georgia’s manufacturing sector has rebounded with the opening and expansion of many plants. One key part of that foundation is expanding the port in Savannah to funnel more commerce to state industries. He also proposes bonds for transportation needs and water supply (reservoirs) projects, both crucial to keeping our commercial base growing.

 Deal proposed, and the Senate passed, a plan to have the state’s community health board levy a “bed tax,” or fee, on hospitals to help fill a $700 million gap in the state’s Medicaid health insurance for the poor. It replaces a direct tax that expires at the end of fiscal 2012.

Revenue from the fee is clearly needed to keep Medicaid solvent, but state leaders are somewhat disingenuous by having the health board do the dirty work. It was their way of giving themselves political cover against the Grover Norquist-led anti-tax pledges most of them signed. By passing the buck to the state agency, they can claim they never raised taxes, hoping to stave off any opposition from within their own party in the next election.

 Two public safety issues are high on the governor’s agenda. One is following through on juvenile justice reform by creating more court-guided programs for minor offenders that provide counseling and guidance rather than a bed behind bars. Such court programs have been successful in Hall County and elsewhere, and their expansion has strong bipartisan support. The plan not only helps offenders ease back into society, but saves money by keeping more nonviolent offenders out of prison.

Deal also is pushing for another popular move to make blood-alcohol limits for boaters the same as drivers to keep waterways safer. That notion came from a deadly summer on Lake Lanier, including the deaths of two Buford brothers to an accused drunken boat operator.

Though difficult to enforce because of the wide expanse of water covered by so few officers, the proposed limits are a sensible way to punish offenders who are caught. Perhaps doing so will create a disincentive for those who compromise safety by overindulging at the helm.

Deal did not enter office in 2010 promising to reinvent the wheel of state governance. The Great Recession was already two years running, and he inherited a bucketload of budget concerns, which would have limited any big ideas anyway. His goal was to provide a steady hand after several years of discord and disjointed leadership from his predecessor and new Republican leaders in the General Assembly who could barely agree on anything, and who failed to prioritize spending needs effectively in the short term.

He has done that, and his agenda for 2013 should keep Georgia moving forward steadily without draining the state’s coffers. With the governor and legislative leaders now on the same page, he has provided a modest, workable agenda that gives lawmakers plenty to do in the weeks remaining in the session. If they follow through, this could turn out to be a fruitful and effective legislative session.