Originally created 02/20/03

Senate Republicans aim cuts at greenspace, Democrats



ATLANTA -- Budget changes being considered by Senate Republicans would increase Gov. Sonny Perdue's entertainment allowance for the executive mansion by $60,000 - more than doubling it - while cutting money to purchase public lands and boosting the cost of health insurance premiums for poor families.

The proposal, still subject to change, will be the first spending bill crafted by the new Republican majority in the Senate which took power after the November elections.

Among other features of the proposal are proposed cuts that would take a bite out of the budgets of two top state Democrats who haven't played ball with the new Republican administration.

The budget steps were recommended Wednesday by subcommittees of the Senate Appropriations Committee, whose leaders are meeting this week to review the reports and make a final recommendation.

Perdue, the first Republican governor since 1872, already receives a $40,000 entertainment allowance for the mansion. That would increase to $100,000 under a subcommittee's recommendations.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said that operating the executive residence is more expensive than Republicans figured. "Almost every day there's a group," he said.

Shane Hix, a spokesman for the governor, said Perdue did not ask for the increase. "These are legislative decisions being made," he said.

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, said the idea of increasing the mansion allowance was an "outrage. It seems like very wasteful spending in this tight budget time."

Under another subcommittee's proposal, the budget for helping local governments buy and preserve "greenspace" would be cut from $30 million to $25 million. "It's worthy, but not a necessity," said Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, as he presented the recommendation.

Under a subcommittee proposal presented by Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, premiums would increase for PeachCare, the state-subsidized health care for children under 18 in poor families.

The maximum premium now is $15. Under Williams' proposal, that could rise to as much as $50 for families at the upper end of the eligibility scale.

Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker's refusal last month to follow the new governor's orders would cost him $300,000 under another proposal.

The money would be shifted to Perdue's office, where it would help finance any costs of the legal action Perdue is contemplating to help assert his claim that the governor calls the state's legal shots, not the attorney general.

Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers, said the administration asked for the money. Hix insisted it did not.

Under another subcommittee proposal, Secretary of State Cathy Cox - a Democrat who last week questioned whether Perdue's proposed referendum on the flag was constitutional - would be allowed an extra $225,000 to help move the state archives, but would have to cut it from salaries.

"There's no retaliation," Johnson said. "She convinced our subcommittee that the $225,000 was needed ... We agreed with her, but we believe she can find the funds within her own administrative staff."

Cox said in a statement, "If you believe these cuts are not political retribution, I've got some swamp land down in Decatur County I'd like to sell you." She said the proposal would require her to fire 17 people.

The budget proposal also would shut down two state commissions which operate under the governor's office - the Human Relations Commission and the Commission on Equal Opportunity. Both groups duplicate federal efforts, Johnson contended.

The proposals all are subject to change until next week when the full Senate Appropriations Committee will act on the bill, which adjusts spending for the budget year ending June 30. Then the measure goes to the full Senate and, when passed there, will go to a conference committee to resolve House-Senate differences.

Like a budget version already approved in the House, the Senate draft includes deep cuts in state programs to help offset an expected revenue shortfall of $620 million. Even with those cuts, however, it still will require $94 million in new revenue or further cuts to balance.

Perdue proposed increasing the alcohol and tobacco taxes, but even his fellow Republicans have been reluctant to go along with tax increases.

That issue will have to be resolved before a final budget is passed.