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Our Views: Before the ax falls on state budget
It is not too early for lawmakers to ponder budget cuts, ideally with a scalpel this time
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Now that we are in the final quarter of the century’s single digit years, there is the unavoidable reality that in just a matter of weeks we will have treated the young goblins of Halloween, demonstrated mandatory gluttony at the Thanksgiving table, basked in the spirit of the Christmas season and welcomed a new year.

Then the fun will really begin as the Georgia General Assembly gathers once again at the state Capitol.

The 2010 session of the state’s legislative body promises to be a doozy, and considering the importance of the challenges awaiting lawmakers, it is not too early for the public dialogue, and input, to start.

Simply put, the economic tsunami that has resulted in record breaking foreclosures, 10 percent unemployment, corporate casualties and personal bankruptcies also has hammered the state government.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, speaking recently to local Rotarians, predicted a new round of administrative cuts to the state budget could trim as much as $1.5 billion in spending under the current budget, which may give an indication of what is ahead for lawmakers as they consider the next state spending plan. This despite two earlier rounds of expense cuts made by the state already this year that have resulted in reduced services, furloughs and cutbacks.

Those entrusted with governing the state can’t wait until the opening gavel next January to decide how to wield the budget ax. That work needs to be done now, in hopes that the 2010 General Assembly session can be businesslike and efficient, words seldom used in describing the governance of the state by the members of its House and Senate.

In his Gainesville address, Cagle said he hoped that state officials will not again look for across-the-board cuts in departmental expenses, as was the case with a 5 percent reduction earlier this year. We agree. The quickest and easiest way to reduce any governmental budget is to apply a mandated cut to all departments equally. But while such an approach may cut spending, it doesn’t necessarily serve the governed well.

When state lawmakers gather in January, government revenues and spending have to be at the top of the priority list, and everything needs to be on the table for discussion.

Rather than attacking state spending with a chain saw that slices through all departments in equal chunks, lawmakers drafting the next budget will better serve the state by slicing and dicing with a well-aimed scalpel, one capable of identifying urgent priorities and separating those needs from programs that are perhaps of lesser importance.

Regardless of the approach taken, lawmakers can’t do as they have in the past: delaying until the final days of their 40-day session vital votes on budget issues, then rushing through them at the last minute with 11th-hour changes and amendments that make for better politics than government.

There is no escaping the reality of the numbers. Georgia finished fiscal year 2009 with revenue collections that were some $1.9 billion below projections. There has been no miraculous overnight change in economic conditions to foster great hope that the early months of FY 2010 will deliver the state from its economic malaise.

Earlier this month, the state announced that tax collections had dropped by about 16 percent in September over the same month last year, $1.3 billion compared to about $1.6 billion in September 2008. Three months into fiscal year 2010, revenues are down about 14 percent compared to the first three months of 2008.

Absent tax increases — which lawmakers are loathe to consider in an election year, and which realistically would only add to the financial burdens already overloading many in the state — legislators must make tough, dramatic decisions on cutting spending. There can be no sacred cows. Every department, every program, every employee of the state government needs to be on the table for discussion.

But the next legislative session cannot be so obsessed with cutting spending that it damages the ability of the state to provide vital services. Neither can it balance the state budget by dumping more of the tax load to the local level, as has been the case in the past.

What is desperately needed is a future spending plan that identifies those things that the state must do at the highest possible level — educate its children, protect its residents, provide essential social services — and make sure that adequate funding for the most essential of services is provided.

Conversely, those programs for which a compelling argument for their urgency cannot be made need to be gutted or eliminated completely.

It’s much easier to govern in good times than bad, and Georgia has had a lot of good economic years over the past two decades. Now it is time for true leaders to step forward.

Why talk about it now, weeks before the next legislative session and the adoption of the state’s next spending plan? Because now is the time to let local legislators know what you need and expect from state government. The term for every legislator in Georgia is up for renewal in next year’s elections, and now more than ever we need those who represent us to earn our votes.

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