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For all of the promises candidates for governor make, all of the policy initiatives and bright ideas they and their campaign geniuses have devised, each one of them knows that there really is just one overriding issue in this race, one that effects every other.
The state budget.
They can devise ingenious plans for transportation, education, water and public safety, but without the money to pay the tab, they might as well promise to ban humidity, make the Chattahoochee flow backward and hand the Braves the World Series trophy.
Our state isn't broke, but it isn't lighting cigars with $10 bills, either. With tax revenue continuing to decline and a big bold constitutional amendment against red ink, state leaders have two clear choices when it comes to balancing the books: Cut spending to the bone and beyond, or raise taxes.
It's not a pleasant prospect. Candidates from both parties like to roll out shiny new programs to fill campaign promises, like new cars on a TV game show. That's money the state currently doesn't have to spend.
So the remaining choice is to continue what Gov. Sonny Perdue and the legislature have been fretting over, which is to slice the state budget down as far as humanly possible without turning the clock back to the 19th century.
Republicans, and now most Democrats, vow to make government leaner, meaner and cheaper while growing the economy and adding jobs. What they don't do, however, is offer a lot of specifics.
To be fair, there are plenty of ideas. Some advocate cutting this or that wasteful program. Some want to go after delinquent taxes to boost revenue. Others say that by slicing taxes even further, businesses will expand and jobs will be created, pumping more taxes into state coffers in the long run. All have plans of some kind to grow the economy, whether through tax incentives or other means to lure new green energy and high-tech industries.
These goals all are valid and several seem workable, yet none address the short-term concerns of balancing the budget without major cuts. The problem is here and now. The solutions offered so far are not.
Yet it is understandable that candidates don't offer massive detail on what will get cut when they take office. Everyone knows that promising pain is no way to inspire voter turnout and win an election.
"Vote for me and I'll scrape the gold off the state Capitol," is a good starting point, but no one loses a job or a government check if lawmakers meet under the Iron Dome. Tougher decisions await.
And therein lies the rub. As we've seen in the past two years, every time the governor or legislature moves to take a huge whack at spending, those on the receiving end rise in opposition. It's the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) principle of politics: Yes, by all means cut government spending; just cut someone else's and not mine. Whether it is cuts to education, road projects, Medicaid, unemployment benefits or parks, whatever government tries to trim, someone is ready to stand in front of the bulldozers to prevent it.
The problem with short-term cuts is that they can affect the long-term bottom line. If schools, roads and infrastructure continue to erode, the state can't attract new industries and its economy will wither.
That explains why candidates for state office are hesitant to alienate a large group of potential voters with tales of pain. It is their way to keep a happy face on a dire situation a little bit longer before the anesthesia wears off and it's time to pull out the big knife.
Next year's budget process, in fact, is likely to leave even deeper, longer-lasting scars. The current budget was propped up to a large extent by federal stimulus spending doled out by Congress and the Obama administration. Barring another dose of largess from Capitol Hill, those funds aren't likely to return in 2011, leaving the states on their own to get their fiscal houses in order. In Georgia's case, that means less money for "shovel-ready" construction projects, health care entitlements, schools and other critical needs, leaving the state to squeeze more blood from a dry stone.
The new governor needs considerable skills to tiptoe through this minefield. He or she must work closely with leaders in the House and Senate to avoid the kind of sniping turf wars we saw in recent years that served only to fill news pages and blogs with their antics. That will be an even dicier proposition if the governor and legislative majority are from different parties.
And the uncertainty of future revenue should lead voters to think twice before blindly lining up behind a candidate who promises never to raise taxes on anything.
The governor must work with department heads and get each to square up their budgets by cutting all of the fat. He or she must find creative new ways to increase revenue and grow the state's economy, bringing in more businesses and jobs with a minimum of up-front investment. Spending cuts need to be prioritized, made with a scalpel and not an ax, to keep the most critical needs (public safety, schools) solvent.
And, most important, the governor must look Georgians in the eye and honestly tell them what must be done and why.
Time will tell if any of the 15 people seeking the office have this ability. In the meantime, dig deeper and listen to the candidates' ideas on solving the budget. Even if the specifics sound too good to be true — and nearly all do at this point — what's more important is to determine the character and intellect each possesses that might help meet this challenge.
The candidate who seems capable, sincere and has a firm grasp on the problems the state faces is the one who might be able to lead us through the tough times, and the one who deserves your vote on July 20 and again on Nov. 2.