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Bleak budget choices ahead for Georgia lawmakers

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ATLANTA  - Huge college tuition hikes. Shorter school years for elementary and secondary students. Long waiting lists for pre-kindergarten. Cuts to health providers who treat poor Medicaid patients. Fewer workers to process the exploding number of food stamp applicants.

It was a gloomy week of budget hearings at the Georgia Capitol as state legislators heard in sometimes stark terms what a steep new round of budget cuts could look like.

Heading into this year's legislative session, many of Georgia's ruling Republicans had pledged not to raise taxes to balance the state books. Now some are saying that tax or fee increases may be needed to avoid crippling cuts.

House Speaker David Ralston said everything is on the table, including a tax hike for cigarettes or a new fee on hospitals and health care plans. Those had once seemed unpalatable.

But worse-than-expected tax collections for the month of January have dramatically altered the political landscape at the state Capitol. Georgia could be facing another $1 billion-plus shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 2011.

Legislators said the choices are grim.

"Layoffs are inevitable," said state Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

"Whole programs will have to go," he said.

At budget hearings this past week, a parade of weary state officials said they've cut down to the bone.

"We are a very tired group of people," Department of Human Services Commissioner B.J. Walker told lawmakers on Friday.

"We've got large caseloads on the ground and one furlough day a month. It's not easy and it's very rough out there."

Gov. Sonny Perdue has been pushing for a 1.6 percent bed tax on hospitals to fill part of the budget hole.

Facing a skeptical state Legislature, Perdue's office distributed to reporters a Wall Street Journal chart that ranked state governments by the amount spent per individual in 2008, before the state really began to chop its budget. Georgia had the lowest spending in the nation.

"It shows that it was a lean budget before the downturn started," spokesman Bert Brantley said.

Besides the hospital tax, Perdue has proposed siphoning money from a state environmental loan fund popular with local governments for infrastructure improvements. He projects 4 percent revenue growth in the coming fiscal year, an estimate that is now looking optimistic.

Even with the rosy revenue forecast there are deep cuts.

Walker said that she would lose 137 eligibility workers for food stamps and Medicaid. That slows the processing time for those benefits from 30 days to about 50, she said.

State education officials said that if the fiscal picture continues to worsen, districts should be allowed to reduce the number of days students are in the classroom every year rather than automatically subjecting to teachers to more unpaid furlough days.

Scott Austensen, deputy state school superintendent for finance, also told lawmakers that state tests for first- and second-graders could be on the chopping block. So could advanced placement tests.

Georgia public college students could face a whopping 77 percent tuition increase if the state cuts go through, university system Chancellor Erroll B. Davis told lawmakers,

"You can't give top-flight quality, accept everyone you want to be educated, put them all in small classrooms and offer all the majors that people demand while we're cutting - not millions, not tens of millions - but hundreds of millions out of the system," Davis said.

Legislators pushed back, arguing that Regents should cut their administrative costs before hiking tuition and fees for students.

Lawmakers in the coming week or two must chart a course forward. And nearly all choices have downsides.

Layoffs would boost the state's already high unemployment rolls. An early retirement offer would strain the state's pension fund and could take years to implement because of a state law demanding an actuarial study.

Already the state has shaved nearly 5,000 positions through attrition and not filling vacancies.

Education is one of the biggest chunks of state spending. But cuts to teachers and classrooms are unpopular, especially in an election year.

"There's the rhetoric. There's the ideology. This week the General Assembly heard in very blunt terms what the reality is," Alan Essig, executive director of the nonpartisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said.

"It's not pretty."

_____

Associated Press Writer Dorie Turner contributed to this report

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corgimom
38770
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corgimom 02/26/10 - 05:48 pm
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When you lose high-paying

When you lose high-paying jobs overseas, and have a huge influx of low-skilled, uneducated workers that put a strain on state welfare programs and that send most of their money out of the country, this is the inevitable result.

disssman
6
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disssman 02/26/10 - 06:17 pm
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When are they going to look

When are they going to look at teacher salaries and figure out that we can't afford to pay 6 figures salaries to a large portion? Do a Ronald Regan and cut their pay and if they don't like it let them go. In all honesty they should also go to a Jimmy Carter Zero Base budget process and fund only what is absolutely essential. If college courses are too expensive, then the market will tell them to shut down, professors will be faced with a reduced lifestyle or unemployment, their choice. Stop the hemoraging of food stamps by awarding contracts for low cost support from single sources. If you want food great go get it but reduce the quantity of selections to those food items that are actually less cost. There are many ways to save, but no one is willing to sacrifice.

disssman
6
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disssman 02/26/10 - 06:23 pm
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Like I said in a different

Like I said in a different post yesterday. The nations of India, Paakistan, Germany, Italy, Australia and on and on and on all manage to have a well educated populace (better than ours) without the bells and whistles of computerized everything in the classroom. They still use the old tried and true systems of paper books, chalk boards and foot transportation to get kids to school. It works for them, and is producing results, why won't it work for us?

truthteller
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truthteller 02/26/10 - 06:26 pm
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Welcome to the wonderful

Welcome to the wonderful world of Republican government. But what's the problem; isn't this what Georgia votes for?

Pay What U Owe
5
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Pay What U Owe 02/26/10 - 07:22 pm
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The problem with your theory,

The problem with your theory, Diss, is the competitive marketplace. Georgia has a problem giving University faculty a decent wage commensurate with years on years of training. Other states, esp in the NE, do not. They suck up all the best faculty, we sink to the bottom of the educational ranking. Business invest there for the work force, not here. Historically we could tell them to step off because we had manufacturing jobs but you outsourced on them. Now what you got? All the Indians and Pakistanis taking your lunch. Squeeze them tax dollars you think you are saving. Soon they will be all you have.

Chillen
17
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Chillen 02/26/10 - 08:14 pm
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Bring on the crippling budget

Bring on the crippling budget cuts! These politicians need to get a spine and start to learn the word "No".

All governments must stop spending so much money. I would love to have a week with these folks to slash the non-essential programs and redesign essential programs. Cuts? With all due respect to those employed by the government, here's a suggested list. (fyi, private companies have already done ALL of this)

1. Pensions. I know they are "sacred" to govt workers but no other industry gives them. The govt should help employees by matching them 3-4% on their 401K and that is it, just like a private business. This measure alone would solve the problem for a while.
2. All art work/statues, new buildings, furniture orders, anything that can be cancelled or put off should be.
3. Staff that is non-essential should be eliminated. It is OK for someone to answer their own phone or check their own voice mail!
4. All travel to conferences should be cancelled. No airfare, no hotels, nothing.
5. Use of state vehicles by private individuals who are off duty - cancelled.
6. No more meal reimbursement for working meetings (brown bag it!).
7. Pay scales need to be examined and made realistic to today's economy. And this includes most of all, all you over paid folks at the top.
8. If there is reimbursement for education, stop doing it.
9. Make due with the old computer for a while.
10. Environmental & climate "change" causes - gone. Cut 100%.
11. Cut state park expenses - a private person out west is running state parks for less money than the govt and is making a profit (and still paying "rent" to the state). Without cutting services or raising fees. It can be done.

I swear this list is endless.

Under no circumstances should taxes be raised. Haven't the state authorities been paying attention to national politics?!

Pay What U Owe
5
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Pay What U Owe 02/26/10 - 08:54 pm
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Um ...genius. Thanks for the

Um ...genius. Thanks for the list. Here's a newsflash to save you from looking at the national media. We did all those things. Two years ago. Now you get to decide whether you want to have an education system or not. Sounds like the only "savings" you will get is your mediocre place in the world. Would you like fries with that?

glassrinkmaker
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glassrinkmaker 02/26/10 - 08:59 pm
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Pay, and um, just where do

Pay, and um, just where do you get your facts. If you don't think GA can cut 1 billion in waste--you are smoking some serious hemp. The DOT, could cut that much itself--one man working, 15 watching! Get rid of para pros in schools, asst principals, [filtered word] supers, spokespersons----the list goes on, and on and on!

Pay What U Owe
5
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Pay What U Owe 02/26/10 - 09:06 pm
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You could cut the subs but

You could cut the subs but they use the paras and the temp faculty in lieu of real professionals. Real teachers cost money. ASU has been steadily removing it's tenure stream faculty for a decade, eroding it's ratings as it goes. Once you get rid of the temps, they will have no faculty at all. Moreover, you are kicking a large number of people onto the unemployment rolls, shifting the burden from USG to the dole.

I wonder what the filtered word was.

Chillen
17
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Chillen 02/26/10 - 09:15 pm
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pay what u owe.....

pay what u owe..... government worker.....no way all those cuts have been made genius. If they had we'd be 100's of millions of dollars better off. What pet project in the list above upset you the most? Pensions? Art? And my list didn't didn't come from the media, it came from years of running a profitable business. I know what it takes to balance a budget, something the government is absolutely ignorant about.

Here's another for the list. Cut social programs that the state funds - any welfare, medicaid, etc. Phase them out over a 5 year period. Theres another billion dollars!

Sean Moores
702
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Sean Moores 02/26/10 - 09:20 pm
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The perils of a profanity

The perils of a profanity filter. Glass just meant "asst supers" and misspelled it. No harm no foul.

Pay What U Owe
5
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Pay What U Owe 02/26/10 - 09:33 pm
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Sorry, Joe the Plumber, your

Sorry, Joe the Plumber, your tiny shop does not give you a perspective. USG alone has cut $400 million in the last 18 months. Most of the faculty (the one with the high salaries) in the USG system don't take traditional state pensions. They take a matching program rated at competitor schools around the nation. Staff get state pensions but the trade off is they have low salaries. The reason state pension programs were instituted was based on the idea of "pay less now", a classic taxpayer pallative designed to convince you you were "saving money"m when in fact, you just had to pay later. Go for low salary, no pensions and you infrastructure will crater more than it already is. Art budgets are trivial. The furloughs actually cost money because it took more people to keep track of who got furloughed when. Cut all social services and you will be spending more on cops.

I have always been impressed at the self-delusion that accompanies Augusta and it's anti-tax culture. For all the dementia of the Tea-dummies, Augusta lives on the federal teat. The three largest employers are all massively federally under-written. SRS is private companies living on federal contracts, esp. since The Stimulus. MCG is composed a research school, with nearly $100 million in NIH funding, and what is little more than an indigent hospital, living off Medicaid payments. Fort Gordon is, obviously, federal money and if it vanished, not only would those funds be gone but a massive blackhole would form in the private sector of supporting businesses. Despite this, Augustans are the first one to take the axe to Federal and State taxation. Surely, we have met the enemy and it is us.

Junket831
0
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Junket831 02/26/10 - 09:48 pm
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While governments can

While governments can certainly continue to cut non-essential purchases (new furniture, wall art, new vehicles, etc.) another area that would assist in the fair funding of government is to eliminate that myriad of tax breaks given out to special interests. These are done both at the state and national level. They create a situation in which the tax burden falls on fewer and fewer individuals who are tired of paying more and more taxes. For example, look at property tax rates. They vary depending on a wide variety of factors. One neighbor may pay 10X what the next door neighbor pays for essentially the same home. No more breaks, just a flat rate and everyone pays.

Chillen
17
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Chillen 02/26/10 - 10:13 pm
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pay what you owe. Well you

pay what you owe. Well you can just solve all the states budget problems with all your vast business knowledge. Cuts must be made, lets see your suggestions. And they need to be big because tax revenues are going to be way off in the coming years. Taxes can't be increased because everyone is broke. We'll be anxiously awaiting the liberal's list so please, bring it on.

By the way - Pensions made sense when govt workers were underpaid. That is no longer the case.

added note, the size of a business doesn't matter. If you run a large business and you have to make cuts, you cut 50 new computers. In a small business you cut 10. It's all exactly the same. I've worked for huge corporations in Atlanta and Washington DC and I now run my own corporation. There is absolutely no difference. Profit is profit. Cuts are cuts.

And by the way, I don't own a plumbing shop but I'm sure all the plumbers out there who work hard are pleased at your insulting jab. That was pretty rude. Hope your pipes don't freeze tonight.

Pay What U Owe
5
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Pay What U Owe 02/26/10 - 10:15 pm
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I like my plumber actually.

I like my plumber actually. Connor's is who I use. High quality stuff. "Joe the Plumber" was a political ref to a rube who got played by McCain-Palin in the 2008 campaign as a representative small business person. I recommend you watch the news more.

Very few teachers make $100K. Go here:

http://www.open.georgia.gov/sta/search.aud

Select Local Boards of Education and use the pull down to select Richmond County. The results will be alphabetical. Click Salary to rank them by salary. Out of 6669 employees, 18 make over $100K. None of them are public school teachers.If you fired them all, you would no principals and still have 6651 employees.

My solution is indeed, to cut spending where you can, recognizing it will probably be insufficient. When you get to the point, where you have to sacrifice your own blood vs. the quality of our communal good, a patriot cuts himself. I would eliminate a tax breaks for the low end of the spectrum. Poor or not, everyone needs some skin in the game. I would also go after my own income class. I pay $2000 a month in federal taxes and $500 in state. I gave $10K to charitable causes last year, largely through my church. I have no real deductions beyond my home and my charity. Despite my "tax burden", I would welcome a tax increase. I love my country and my home and would be willing to give more to help my fellows get over. My work with charities convinced me long since that, despite your misgivings, the gov't is often the most efficient solution to a problem. I am not the only one who thinks like this. Many of the "liberal elite" are not welfare queens, but affluent Americans sickened by the corporate hijacking of our common good. We are willing to pay to make it right. If you can't help, you should at least get out of the way.

Chillen
17
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Chillen 02/26/10 - 10:23 pm
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I know who joe the plumber is

I know who joe the plumber is (duh!) but you referenced a "tiny shop" indicating a tiny plumbing shop. I think its great you want to pay more taxes to solve the problem. Just leave me out of it, my tax burden is high enough. You can just mail in the extra on 4/15 to get a head start on it.

I'll never ever agree with a liberal, I believe in freedom and liberty way too much, so I bid you good night.

Pay What U Owe
5
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Pay What U Owe 02/26/10 - 10:25 pm
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Sleep tight, know that your

Sleep tight, know that your "freedom and liberty" are coming at everyone else's expense. I myself have trouble sleeping like that but YMMV.

whatmistake
100
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whatmistake 02/26/10 - 10:33 pm
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Spineless politicians are

Spineless politicians are only now showing signs of acknowledging what the average citizen has always known: personnel account for 75% or more of the cost of the typical government agency at any level. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where the real savings can be found. The thought of cutting payroll and achieving real savings is anathema to the typical politician. But it's got to be done, and the sooner the better. Georgians, or anyone for that matter, can survive with a much lower level of government "service". It's been done before and can be done again.

Chillen
17
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Chillen 02/26/10 - 10:57 pm
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Good point whatmistake. I

Good point whatmistake. I guess this is all part of the "new normal". Lines may be longer, waits for service might be longer, class sizes may be larger - all due to less staffing - but sometimes thats the way it is. We will definitely make it it just might be uncomfortable for a while. As you can see with opposing view points, its gonna be quite a battle.

Just me 2
0
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Just me 2 02/28/10 - 06:59 am
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I have never seen the economy

I have never seen the economy like this. I looks like Obama is going to send us to "THE GREATER DEPRESSION"!

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