Originally created 01/12/00

GOP criticizes money reserve



ATLANTA -- The money that Gov. Roy Barnes wants to keep "in the bank" in case the economy turns sour should go to Georgia taxpayers, legislative Republicans said after the governor's annual budget address to the General Assembly on Tuesday.

The governor's $14.4 billion budget request for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is up from the $13.9 billion the state would spend this year if lawmakers approve the governor's midyear budget plan.

Mr. Barnes said Georgia already is a "national pacesetter" when it comes to cutting taxes.

He cited legislation enacted in recent years that exempted groceries from sales taxes, raised the standard deduction for taxpayers older than 65 and cut $1 billion from the unemployment tax.

But he warned lawmakers that dipping into the state surplus beyond the $166 million property tax cut he's recommending, the second installment in an eight-year plan to raise Georgia's homestead exemption to $50,000, could threaten the future.

"If we spend everything that we have now when times are good, we'll be back here in a special session cutting the budget when a recession hits," Mr. Barnes told a joint session of the House and Senate during a 50-minute speech. "That's what happened in 1991. I don't want that to happen again on my watch."

Among cuts in the proposed budget is closing the infirmary at Gracewood State School and Hospital, one of two closings that collectively will save $1.5 million a year. The infirmary at Georgia Regional Hospital at Augusta was closed last year without any problems, and none are expected from this closing, said Rudy Magnone, chief facility administrator over both institutions.

"Nobody will lose their job, and it's not a precursor to anything," Dr. Magnone said. Gracewood had been at the center of a wild swirl of rumors last year that it would be closed until Mr. Barnes said there were no plans to do that. Some Augusta legislators also had vowed to keep Gracewood open.

Gracewood would rely on other Augusta providers for health care, and those who were in the infirmary, which averaged about five patients, likely would be transferred to a more appropriate setting, such as a nursing home, Dr. Magnone said.

Although the governor will present his education reform plan to lawmakers in a separate address Thursday, six pages of Tuesday's 15-page budget message were taken up with various education initiatives. The 2001 budget would include a net increase of $133 million for education, not including funds to accommodate growth in student enrollment or pay raises.

But the sharpest criticism from Republican leaders came over taxes.

"What stands out the most in the budget is how little of it is going back to the taxpayers," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "This is taxpayer money. If they want to spend it on health care and education, they can. But the government can't spend money better than families."

Mr. Johnson cited a $300,000 initiative to create an Office of Children's Advocate as an example of unnecessary spending. The office would investigate and intervene in child abuse and fatality cases.

"Why not just fix the (Department of Human Resources)?" Mr. Johnson asked. "They've been running this program. ... Why create a watchdog to watch the watchdog? That's why this growth (in spending) seems to be uncontrolled."

Among the education goals Mr. Barnes outlined Tuesday are reducing class sizes in grades kindergarten through third, increasing the number of school social workers and psychologists by more than one-third, boosting funding for alternative schools for rowdy pupils and creating a funding stream for continuing education of teachers and administrators.

He drew a loud round of applause from legislators when he said some of the money to pay for those initiatives would come from about $40 million he wants to cut from what school systems spend on administrators.

"The days are over when school bureaucrats can hoard money for their administrative expenses by making classes in our early grades too large," he said.

Mr. Barnes also is recommending $233.6 million for pay raises for state and school system employees, including 3 percent increases for teachers and board of regents personnel.

His budget would set aside $30 million to encourage local governments to preserve 20 percent of their undeveloped land as green space, $12.8 million to hire more personnel and improve services offered by the Department of Juvenile Justice and $12 million to increase the number of beds for inmates sentenced to alternatives to incarceration programs, which are less expensive than maximum-security prisons.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.