When the gavel falls in the houses of the General Assembly Monday, lawmakers will face their usual spate of issues, some that seemingly never fade away: transportation, education, water, taxes, same old, same old.
Only this year, lawmakers don't have the luxury of piddling around with pet projects and pork-barrel goodies for the folks back home. With the state budget awash in red ink to the tune of some $2 billion or more, putting the state budget on the treadmill should be priority No. 1 from Day 1.
In fact, one could argue that the only real issue of importance in this year's session is fixing the budget, both in finding ways to cut spending and increase revenue. Everything else that comes to mind can wait.
And as to the notion that lawmakers can pay attention to more than one issue at a time, remember that the 40-day session goes by quickly under the best of circumstances. There usually is a bucketload of new bills, including the budget, heading out the door toward the governor's desk in the session's final hours each year. The last two sessions ended with the majority Republican leadership in the House promoting major tax reforms in the 11th hour that didn't make it through.
This year, that kind of procrastination won't do. A state budget that needs to be trimmed as much as 10 percent across the board needs to be the main focus of both houses from the start. Budget priorities need to be fully debated and discussed for public consumption, not ramrodded through at the last minute
And when that work commences, what should the budget priorities be? It's certainly not easy to cut that much from a growing state's budget when there are so many needs and new projects that deserve consideration. But the economic recession has forced every governing body in the nation, from the U.S. Congress down to the statehouses and every county commission and city council, to find ways to stretch their shrinking tax dollars a little further without cutting essential public services.
No one wants to pay higher taxes, but we also want our fires put out, our roads paved and our government buildings and services maintained at a reasonable level. So the Solomon's choice that the state faces is not pleasant as they dish out the pain. Without making this any harder, though, there clearly are areas that the state can't afford to cut too heavily, lest the long-term effects make the budget crisis even worse.
One of those is education. The state already ranks near the bottom in the nation in nearly every measurable educational standard. Though spending more money on schools hasn't always yielded the desired results, it's clear that spending less will not raise the bar for Georgia students. The diminishing returns come down the road when our young people are less prepared to enter the global work force.
Georgia's role as a driving force in the regional and national economy can't continue without skilled, high tech workers. That won't happen with underfunded schools.
Sure, schools need to cut, but only from nonessential areas that don't affect classroom instruction. That means keeping the best teachers and maintaining the infrastructure needed in the classrooms. Cutbacks in administration, building expansion and transportation will have to be enough until the economy turns around.
Similarly, law enforcement can't do with less, not and keep our neighborhoods safe. That's a high priority for any government. Same goes with fire and emergency medical agencies, including the state's need to fully fund trauma care, especially in rural areas.
And though the state already is challenged to fully fund its Medicare and PeachCare health insurance requirements, that's another long-term commitment that can't be tossed aside. Without it, indigent patients without insurance will just fill hospital emergency rooms in greater numbers, raising health costs for everyone.
What's left to cut? Quite a bit actually, When you look at the pork projects that slide through the Gold Dome most years, it's easy to see where some of the savings can come from. Most state agencies have a heavy layer of administrative fat that can be the first to go. If households and businesses are forced to run leaner in tough times, government should lead the way.
One area suggested by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is for the state to cease operating golf courses and resort lodges. Private industry can take care of the tourism trade without the state doing so — and that goes for the governor's pet Go Fish project of last year as well.
Many transportation projects already have been put on hold by the Department of Transportation as it seeks to funnel its money into those with the highest priority. Though traffic problems remain a troublesome issue for metro Atlanta as well as midsized towns like Gainesville, we're going to have to muddle by for while and plan trips more carefully, as we've done as gas prices have bounced up and down.
The flip side of the budget coin is boosting revenue, which also should be looked at carefully. Hikes in specific taxes, such as for cigarettes or other "vices," are worth discussing, along with higher user fees for some services. But any increases need to be attached to voluntary behavior whenever possible and not add a greater tax burden to struggling middle-class Georgians.
Whatever the final decisions, rest assured that lawmakers will fight to protect those projects marked for cuts that affect their districts and their supporters. There's nothing wrong with disagreement and strong debate on issues of this importance. The tough inner workings of government can't, and shouldn't, be avoided.
That's why the budget needs the statehouse's full attention. We don't need more laws allowing residents to tote guns into church or a bunch specialty car tags to save endangered possums. If our state is to maintain its capacity to prosper with a diverse, growing population, we must get our fiscal house in order as soon as possible. Otherwise, we and our children will be paying higher taxes for fewer services in the years to come.
That's why we urge lawmakers to shelve the personal agendas this year and come together on the state budget. Bread and circuses won't fly this year.
For many Georgians, 2009 promises to be a difficult year. Come the elections of 2010, we expect them to remember how well those elected to govern the state did their job when confronted by something more challenging than renaming yet another bridge.