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Our Views: Budget cuts should spare sacred cows
State should trim waste, tap surplus, delay new projects before axing health, education, tax relief

The hard work is under way in trimming the state budget by some $2 billion to make up for the state's revenue shortfall. And predictably, the turf wars have begun.

Last week, legislators met in conferences to begin balancing the 2009 budget to meet the expected deficit. Once that's done, they still have to pass a 2010 budget before the gavel falls on the session's 40th day.

At a time when the state is struggling to fund education, transportation, health care and other big-ticket needs, the cuts are going to be painful. They will hit some harder than others, but they will hit us all somehow.

The first sacred cows emerged this week, and the howls of protest soon followed.

Gov. Sonny Perdue proposes cutting $30 million from state funds provided to local districts that help pay for school nurses. The nurses have particularly become more important as diabetes and other chronic conditions have escalated, with trained health pros best able to treat afflicted students.

The goal, Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said, is to trim wherever possible from the education budget without directly affecting classroom instruction. That means $185 million this year and perhaps $200 million next year.

It's true that classroom instruction can't fall victim to cuts without a severe negative impact. But a child in need of medical care isn't going to be able to learn much in class. Having a nurse on hand to deal with health issues frees up teachers to focus on instruction rather than applying band-aids, dispensing medicine or swabbing bloody noses, not to mention more serious cases. Otherwise those duties will fall to already-burdened administrators and assistants.

And $30 million really is a drop in the bucket of the overall budget, just 1.5 percent of the $2 billion the state needs to cut. Surely that could be taken from a program less vital to the well-being of children, particularly those with special health needs.

Georgia has about 1,200 school nurses, one for every 1,598 students. Without state money, districts may be forced to cut nursing funds altogether, spread fewer nurses out among several schools or find alternative ways to fund the program, none an easy or desirable solution.

Other department heads have made their cases for budget help. University System Chancellor Erroll Davis argued against further cuts for higher education, yet came under fire from lawmakers for the system's refusal to furlough workers or forgo pay cuts to trim costs. Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans wants more funding for road projects, many of which have been put on hold for lack of money. And Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker said more money was needed for the state's mental health system.

Department heads who plead for budget amnesty are just doing their jobs in trying to protect their piece of the pie. That's why it falls to legislators to make the tough choices.

Another program in jeopardy is the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant, which reimburses counties and cities for money they lose on homestead exemptions. That money then is returned to taxpayers as a credit, averaging $200 to $300 per household.

The governor says the $428 million needed to provide the grants simply isn't there. But lawmakers are hesitant to sign off on this one, as it gives the impression the state is raising taxes.

Thursday, Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver drafted a letter to Perdue criticizing the idea, and the other commissioners chimed in. They say that without the state's share of the grant, the county will have to make up for that money, or send out new tax bills requiring residents to pay more.

Neither is an attractive option with the economy in the dumps. But it shows how budget cuts at the Capitol can trickle down and hurt counties and cities. What is saved at one level may require more spending at another to plug the gap, and it's taxpayers who foot the bill either way, no matter whose pocket it comes out of.

That's why state legislators need trim the budget with a scalpel, not a machete. Start with the fat, unnecessary projects and services that can be privatized or scrapped entirely. That should come first before the blade is taken to crucial services such as education or health, or to providing tax relief in a tough economy.

They also should be willing to follow Perdue's goal to dip into the state's "rainy day" surplus fund of about $1.2 billion. The governor proposes using about half of it to offset the '09 and '10 budgets, but taking more of it is justified. The days are pretty rainy now, which is why that money was stashed away to start with.

Everybody has something at stake in a budget that must be adjusted to match reality. Georgia was one of the nation's shining stars during a two-decade economic boom, but the state's unemployment rate has hit 8.1 percent and no one is sure where the bottom is.

And when lawmakers begin crafting a 2010 budget that anticipates further drops in revenue, they need to hold off on as many new projects as possible. Perdue's proposed budget already includes some local initiatives, such as expansion at Gainesville State College and construction of Don Carter State Park, most to be funded by long-term bonds.

We're glad those items made the cut, for our area's sake. But it's hard to make those calls — keep this project, cut that one — without special interests getting in the way. Lawmakers may need to consider a moratorium on all new spending for the next fiscal year, at least for projects that haven't been started. That would channel more scarce resources to needs already in place.

Legislators also have to put aside political concerns — after all, they don't have to campaign for another year — to do the dirty work necessary.

Meanwhile, all Georgians need to be willing to give up something to keep state and local governments solvent, even if some of the goodies we're used to getting have to be put on hold until things get better.

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