Every year, around Christmas, local lawmakers get together with local government officials to discuss prospects for the coming year.
It isnt quite like sitting in Santas lap, but often the all-day meetings provide an opportunity for Columbia County officials to make requests for funding from the state budget. The response theyll get in this years meetings, which begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday, will sound more like Scrooge than Santa.
If there is a Grinch who stole the Christmas goodies, its the weak economy. The final year of Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes single term has already been lean, with state departments getting cut to match shortfalls in revenue. (And most Republicans are quick to point out that these revenue shortages were predicted even as Democrats pushed to not only spend the states surplus, but to borrow a half-billion more to buy votes in their home counties through election-year pork-barrel projects.)
Lawmakers have already gotten the word from Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue that Santas belt will be pretty tight. State Sen. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta - one of four members of Columbia Countys legislative delegation - describes whats coming as a tough, tough year.
Were looking for outstanding leadership from our governor, says Cheeks, who served with Perdue in the state Senate. Hes a person of the utmost, highest integrity.
Perdue also is a man of his word, Cheeks says - and the word from the new governor is that the directors of state agencies will no longer make the case for their budgets by appearing before legislative committees. Instead, Perdue himself will determine spending priorities, and send the entire package to lawmakers.
Cheeks has been appointed to the powerful Conference Committee, which traditionally has functioned as the vehicle for sliding pork spending under the legislative radar. That wont happen this year, Cheeks warns: It will be my job to cut, not to add.
Still, Republican euphoria over their takeover of state government for the first time in 130 years isnt entirely dampened by dim budget prospects. This is probably going to be the toughest budget any of us has faced, says state Rep. Ben Harbin, chairman of Columbia Countys delegation. But the message will be, "Lets be reasonable in our requests.
The message should be: After years of complaining about out-of-control state spending, Georgias Republicans - including Columbia Countys - have an opportunity in a lean year to use the economy as a tool to pare down the excesses of a government distorted by a century of one-party rule.
Columbia County has some needs that state officials should help fund - for example, boosting the satellite campus of Augusta Tech higher on the states priority list, and fixing the state highway departments mess on gridlocked Washington Road (heres a hint: They can find some of the money by leaving North Belair Road alone.) And, certainly, the state is long overdue in funding its promises for school maintenance and operations budgets.
In general, though, Columbia County taxpayers, and those in the rest of the state, will be better off if Georgias new leadership learns to live with less money - even if it means Santa has to be a little stingy.
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