Originally created 04/10/03

Senate budget to cost area



ATLANTA - Augusta's farmers' market would close and Fort Discovery would lose another 10 percent in taxpayer funding under a Senate plan to balance next year's state budget without a tax increase.

The plan restores at least some of Gov. Sonny Perdue's priorities.

The $16.1 billion 2004 budget approved Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee actually spends about $60 million more than the budget that cleared the House on Monday.

At the same time, it avoids a tobacco-tax increase proposed by Mr. Perdue by tapping into one-time sources of revenue and making deeper spending cuts in some areas than had been recommended either by the Republican governor or the Democratic-controlled House.

There's also enough money left over to fully fund the latest installment of the multiyear homestead-tax relief initiative begun by then-Gov. Roy Barnes.

"We've cut as much as we can cut and done as much with one-time money as we can," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

But Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin vowed to fight the cuts.

"They are absolutely destroying the infrastructure of this department," he said.

Mr. Irvin said he has tried to stem the annual losses at the Augusta farmers' market and others by reducing staff but hasn't stemmed the tide of red ink.

Also cut completely was funds for the Augusta Mini Theater.

Lawmakers have been struggling for weeks to figure out how much they need to cut state spending and/or raise taxes to offset declining revenue collections brought on by the recession. Last month, the House overwhelmingly rejected the governor's bill raising tobacco taxes by $348 million.

Democratic leaders tried to bring back a scaled-down version, building a $128 million "anticipated" increase into the 2004 budget. But the plan failed Tuesday night when they couldn't muster enough support to risk putting it on the floor.

The Senate's ideas for balancing the budget are drawing criticism from several directions.

A key component of the Senate budget is a plan to raise $185 million by requiring businesses to accelerate payment of the income taxes they withhold from paychecks.

The one-time measure would match the state's payment schedule to the timetable already in place for federal income taxes. House Majority Leader Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus, said it would hurt businesses, which now are allowed to hold onto state income taxes for up to 45 days.

"It's going to be a pretty big hit," he said.

Mr. Perdue warned that rating companies that determine the interest rates the state pays for bonds tend to look unfavorably upon such budget strategies.

"It's very risky to try to meet the budget deficits we have inherited with one-time fixes," the governor said Wednesday. Mr. Perdue also refused to give up his push for a tax increase, despite missing Tuesday's deadline for bills to pass at least one legislative chamber.

"It's not over till it's over," he said during a news conference.

Others took Senate Republicans to task for slashing too far into the meat of state services.

Among the proposed cuts are $1.7 million in budget savings the state would realize by increasing prescription-drug co-payments for Medicaid recipients from 50 cents to $1. Raising monthly premiums for the PeachCare for Kids program to $10 per child, with a maximum of $20 per family, would save another $900,000.

"Cutting the budget by hurting poor and sick people requires neither ingenuity nor courage," said Linda Lowe, a consumer-health advocate who represents Families First.

Mr. Johnson said the Senate has been "responsible" in its approach by avoiding generic reductions that leave decisions on where to cut to state agencies.

"The cuts are legitimate," he said. "They're specific, detailed and targeted."

Also among those targets are the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, which has taken a lead role in planning for a statewide network of commuter and inter-city passenger lines. The Senate proposal strips the agency of its entire $556,000 budget.

The Republican plan also would restore some of the reductions approved by the House. The Senate earmarked $10 million for the state's Greenspace program, gutted by the House, and nearly all of the $5 million the governor had requested to boost the state's commitment to indigent defense.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the budget Friday.