Georgia lawmakers looking at tax hikes, spending cuts

State's social programs likely to face budget ax

ATLANTA - The long-dreaded moment has arrived in which state government feels the full sting of the recent recession, and the impact on Georgians will be noticeable.

Tax collections have declined nearly 20 percent since the pre-recession peak, but government cuts during the slump haven't been deep enough to fully adjust. That's because the expenses keep growing, whether in student enrollment, medical inflation or pension claims.

Georgia, like other states, postponed some of the worst pain by taking advantage of federal stimulus money, reserves and the sale of various assets.

When the next fiscal year starts, the federal money will have expired, the asset sold and the reserves mostly tapped. The only options remaining are tax increases or additional cuts.

When Gov. Nathan Deal presented the General Assembly his recommendations, he opted to cut.

The assembly's appropriations committees begin meeting Tuesday to learn more about his plan and to decide what about it they will accept.

"I guess that part, when you start looking inside the numbers, is the 7 percent agency cuts," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. "Agencies have been cut on average 19 percent over two years.

"Seven percent cuts on top of those cuts: there'll be some faces on these cuts."

Many of those faces will be state employees who'll be furloughed or laid off. Deal said in his budget address Wednesday that his plan doesn't require any teacher furloughs, but that's only if local school districts have enough in reserves to make up for state spending reductions, said Senate Education Chairman Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody.

Deal's budget would continue "austerity cuts" to the student-funding formula the began in 2003.

"I don't think there's anyone who doesn't believe we can't find more savings out of our local school systems," Millar said. "... My company just laid off 15 people two weeks before Christmas. Would you rather have a furlough or lose your job?

"The legislature is tired of hearing [educators] talk about austerity cuts. That's just the world we live in today."

Some of those faces will be social workers, says Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, and Atlanta-based advocacy organization. Fewer social workers means those still on staff will have more cases and less time to fully investigate every suspected instance of child abuse or neglect, she said.

Some of the faces will be the 1.4 million poor who will no longer get dental, vision or podiatry coverage through Medicaid. It could be the faces of mothers and children with the discontinuation of the Babies Born Healthy Program.

Some cuts are small, such as the $10,000 saved by eliminating funding for the Civil War Commission, the $20,000 for the Aviation Hall of Fame or the $200,000 from the National Science Center. Other cuts are bigger, like the $1.6 million reduction in the Alzheimer Respite Services and the $5 million for closing two youth-detention centers.

Other faces on the cuts are people seeking assistance on their heating bills, a program that typically runs short of money. Rep. Stephanie Benfield, D-Atlanta, recently saw a line of applicants down the block.

"Ironically, many had to freeze in the cold for hours only to learn that there were no more funds for heating assistance," she said. "During these tough economic times, our state needs to focus primarily on those most in need. We should not be cutting heating assistance during frigid weather and essential health care services since these state programs help the poor and elderly."

For every Democrat in the assembly calling for tax increases to prevent further cuts, there are two Republicans refusing to add to the tax burden.

"When you've got unemployment right at 10 percent, I don't think that's a good time to tell Georgians we need more of their money," said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Last year's consideration of the budget prompted demonstrations on multiple occasions. College students, for example, protested cuts to higher education that were merely outlined as one possible scenario. Even artists marched on the Capitol over cuts to arts funding.

Along with the actual cuts Deal is proposing are the programs with little or no money to accommodate growth in spending required by law, the so-called structural deficit, says David Soquist, director of the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University.

"We think there is about $1 billion shortfall," he said.

Instead of services cut, that deficit represents services that should be provided by law but haven't and won't be.

walter.jones@morris.com,

(404) 589-8424

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