When the 2010 session of the Georgia General Assembly begins Monday, lawmakers will face their greatest challenge in decades.
A year ago, the session began in the early months of an economic downturn. Since then, home foreclosures in Georgia have skyrocketed, many banks and financial institutions have failed, other businesses have had to cut back and unemployment has clipped 10 percent.
It is the state’s, and nation’s, greatest economic crisis since the 1970s, and though the recession has eased somewhat, the recovery is slow and its symptoms persist.
One of these symptoms is the drop in government revenue from sales and property taxes. Governments at all levels now have less money for services when more people are in need of them. They have had to cut jobs and furlough workers, with more austere cuts still to come.
So this 40-day session looms as the most crucial in recent history from a legislature that has not always used that time wisely. As always, efforts are needed to shore up education, transportation, water and public safety.
But solutions to these problems will be driven by the decisions made on the state budget and how its dwindling resources are prioritized. For that reason, lawmakers can’t put off the tough decisions until the session’s final days, as they often do.
Cuts that must be made to keep the state budget balanced, as required by the Georgia Constitution, will be even tougher than last year’s and may total $1 billion. State officials didn’t trim off all of the fat last year, but they got a lot, and the next round will be tougher.
Yet the goal still is to maintain as high a level of state services as possible. It means maintaining Medicaid health care funds for indigent Georgians, many of whom lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. It means providing relief for those whose jobs and homes were lost during the recession.
It also means trimming education budgets with a scalpel instead of an ax to make sure administrative costs and less vital expenses are sacrificed first to keep teacher pay steady and maintain high classroom standards. Education cuts that hurt students will have a negative long-term impact from which we may never recover. An educated work force is the path toward a brighter economic future, and that cannot be compromised for any reason.
The state also must avoid doing what it has done all too often in past budget crises: Pass the buck to local governments. When the state cuts its share of money paid to cities, counties and school districts, those municipalities get hit twice, as their own tax revenues are slumping. Some counties, such as Gwinnett, have been forced to raise taxes as a result, passing on more pain to residents.
Incoming House Speaker David Ralston is right when he says raising state taxes would only add to taxpayers’ burden. The solution is to prioritize the budget more effectively so that money goes where it should and not where it shouldn’t. Cutting budgets across the board, as mandated by Gov. Sonny Perdue, doesn’t accomplish that. Some agencies simply are more important than others.
Who can afford to trim more: A tourism bureau or law enforcement? Trauma care or Go Fish Georgia? That’s why the state budget needs to be assessed line by line to whack waste where it still exists before money is cut from more important needs.
"We can sit around and wring our hands about how awful this budget situation is — how gloom and doom it is — but I’m trying to encourage people to think about this as an opportunity for us to really refocus on what it is state government ought to be doing," Ralston told The Times last week.
"I don’t want to send any signals yet on preconceived notions, but do we need to be in the business of halls of fame, for example? I think we need to have a good open discussion: Do we need to be funding a music hall of fame? Do we need to be funding other facilities like that? We’re going to have to prioritize."
Exactly right. And in that process, legislators need to get their constituents on board with the decisions they make. To do so, they must restore public trust in a state government that has been riddled by scandals, ethics violations, backbiting, partisan squabbling and just plain muleheadeness. The tough calls they need to make are going to be more acceptable to a public that knows its elected representatives are acting in the state’s best interests.
But as long as lobbyists and special interests keep their seats at the head of the table to influence budget calls in their favor, Georgians will look askance at any cuts that get rammed down their throat.
Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle must keep their chambers focused on the budget with every waking hour. Lawmakers who propose nonsensical legislation meant to cater to special interests or score points in an election year should be whisked off the floor. No one has time for feel-good bills of little importance that are proposed merely to earn votes and fill campaign coffers.
The mantra should be: Get serious or sit down and shut up.
This is a year Georgians need to watch lawmakers closely. If they act responsibly and govern as true leaders, reward them at the ballot box. But if they turn this year’s session into another three-month exercise in futility, we should send them an even sharper message on Election Day.
Our state is in an economic crisis, and its residents are crying out for true leadership. Members of our General Assembly need to step up and deliver it or step aside next year and let someone else do it.