Originally created 01/13/02

Budget issue will resurface



ATLANTA - With $215 million in state spending cuts already in effect and well-publicized, Gov. Roy Barnes was free to make his midyear budget message last week mostly about what he wants to do to pull Georgia out of recession.

But when the governor outlines his 2003 budget proposals to the General Assembly on Wednesday - halfway through the opening week of the 2002 session - he'll have to talk about the next round of reductions, what he says will become his blueprint for maintaining adequate state services while curbing spending enough to cope with the downturn.

"This is a budget year," Mr. Barnes said recently. "This is about how you manage in order to stimulate recovery ... and manage operating expenses so that you can accommodate the decreased (tax) revenues."

But before getting down to that unpleasant business, the Legislature will convene Monday amid the usual ceremony of opening day.

Representatives and senators will march through the Capitol hallways, ascending staircases at opposite ends of the building from the second to the third floor, where they'll officially begin the second year of their two-year terms.

Little business is transacted during the first week, other than the introduction of bills and the assigning of those measures to committees.

The highlight will be Mr. Barnes' budget address in a packed House chamber to a joint session of the House and Senate.

The governor hasn't revealed the cuts he will announce during that speech. But some indication of what's in store came in the fall as state agencies submitted their plans to comply with the 5 percent across-the-board reductions Mr. Barnes ordered for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

For example, the Department of Community Health is recommending saving $2.1 million next year by not extending Medicaid health coverage to thousands of children in families with incomes 1 1/2 times the federal poverty level. Mr. Barnes already has imposed the same cut on this year's budget.

The Department of Natural Resources has suggested bringing in $500,000 in additional revenue by raising camping fees at state parks by $2 per night.

Meanwhile, House Republicans on Monday plan to unveil an alternative to the economic-stimulus package Mr. Barnes outlined last week in his midyear budget presentation.

The governor's plan relies heavily on borrowing $1.3 billion through the sale of bonds to speed up construction of highways and public buildings. The idea is to take advantage of current low-interest rates and Georgia's sound credit with lenders.

House Republican leader Lynn Westmoreland of Sharpsburg said the GOP alternative will call for a larger tax cut than what Mr. Barnes is recommending, using more of the state's $807 million surplus for tax relief.

"I don't know that you should borrow yourself out of an economic downturn," Mr. Westmoreland said. "We'll present an economic-stimulus package that does it without borrowing."

House and Senate GOP leaders will step forward Monday to unveil a full joint agenda for the session.

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.