For several years, Georgia residents shook their heads sadly as they watched hard times hit other parts of the United States, comforted by the knowledge that our booming Sun Belt economy would keep us insulated from such woes.
Well, the insulation seems to be wearing down.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has mandated across-the-board state budget cuts of 6 percent in every department. That's in reaction to news that state tax revenues are way down for the year, leading to a projected budget shortfall of $1.6 billion.
The budget ax is expected to fall everywhere but could hit especially hard in some areas that can scarce afford to run much leaner, including:
Medicaid and Peach Care programs to provide health care for the poor and their children, which may not be able to match the rising cost of health services.
The public defender system, already depleted by expensive death penalty trials like the one for accused Fulton County courthouse shooter Brian Nichols.
The state's already underfinanced mental health treatment service could face cuts at a time when more resources are needed just to bring it up to par.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation must trim from its crime labs at a time when our growing population has put a greater strain on law enforcement agencies statewide.
State colleges face budget cuts that could total $228 million, which could lead to worker layoffs, higher tuition rates and student fees, and expansion projects mothballed at some schools.
And if you want to get away from all these troubles for a while at a state park, too bad; they're getting hit, too. The state may be forced to close as many as six parks and seven historic sites because of the budget crunch. And planned improvements and additions at other state park facilities are likely to remain in limbo. Some of the areas affected could be in Northeast Georgia.
Also likely to be hit are Local Assistance Grants, money designated for small local projects pushed by legislators in those districts. They total some $6 million, which isn't a lot, but often are classified as "pork" that is easier to trim than statewide spending needs.
Among the projects in our area that could be affected are the Field of Dreams ballpark for physically challenged children in Flowery Branch and improvements at the Northeast Georgia History Center and the Hall County Library System.
And in a time when the state's schools continue to lag behind the nation in test scores and other educational barometers, budget cuts are not needed. The state ranks 47th in the nation in SAT scores, according to figures released last week. Anyone want to guess how far we'll fall if school needs are slashed?
And as always, when the state can't come through with funding for schools or other necessary services, the burden falls on county and city governments. That means higher property taxes for everyone.
Yet Georgia workers aren't in any shape to pay more. The state's median household income has remained stagnant, adjusted for inflation, meaning few of us are bringing home more money. The state's poverty rate is holding steady at 14.3 percent, the nation's 13th highest, meaning the rising economic tide has likely ebbed for the time being.
Georgia also has 17.8 percent of its residents without health insurance, the 10th highest rate in the U.S., even as the percentage of uninsured Americans has dropped. Among those now likely to join the ranks of the unemployed and the uninsured are state workers who nervously await the results of their departments' budget moves.
In addition to ordering the cuts, Perdue has frozen homeowner tax grants worth some $428 million. The governor claims that they have not helped drive individual property taxes down but have only fattened up local government budgets. Yet suspending them may lead those same local jurisdictions to raise property taxes to meet their own budget needs, passing the same costs on to taxpayers.
The upshot is that while more Georgians are in need of government assistance, there is less of it likely to be available because of the pending budget crisis.
What to do? One suggestion floating about is to bring the state legislature into special session to address spending cuts, an expensive idea unto itself. Such a move over the next two months isn't likely to bear fruit anyway as long as lawmakers have one eye cocked toward the Nov. 4 election. No one wants to make hard choices before voters cast a ballot; if tough decisions are to be made, it's more pragmatic to save them for the legislature's regular session starting in January.
Georgia has a constitutional amendment prohibiting deficit spending by state government, so something must be done. There are no easy answers, short of a sudden uptick in revenue that no one anticipates. Let's just be thankful that the legislature didn't adapt more drastic tax-cutting measures last session that might have made this coming year's effort even harder.
Though a special session may not be helpful, we do need legislators to begin laying the groundwork for a slimmed-down budget that can be agreed upon before the 40th and final day of next year‘s session.
And other priorities and pet projects need to take a back seat until the fiscal crisis can be headed off. At this point, it's hard to imagine any issue that's more important.
Perhaps some of our legislators should spend a little less time on the campaign trail this fall to focus on budget plans. Considering how few of them face strong opposition, that's not asking much. The job of governing always should come before political concerns.
The governor is right to ask departments to audit their finances in anticipation of possible cuts, but those need to be assessed carefully before they are slashed at random. Some departments' spending is more vital than others and needs to be preserved until a long-term solution is found.
Nobody likes budget cuts any more than we like higher taxes, but both may be part of our future if things don't turn around soon. Patience on our part and wise leadership on the part of state officials will see us through. Let's do our part and hold them to theirs.