After years of neglect, corruption and financial mismanagement, Georgias budget has finally hit the brick wall created by a recession and preparations for war. The combination has created a perfect storm of a budget crisis.
Our deficit was not created by Gov. Sonny Perdue or the new Legislature, but it has fallen on us to clean up the mess.
Perdue has recommended a balanced approach to dealing with Georgias budget crisis. He began by carefully cutting spending by $1 billion while still maintaining essential services and meeting the obligations of the state. The governor then reluctantly denied a pay increase to state employees and teachers as an alternative to massive layoffs. His budget dipped into the states "rainy day" fund. And, with the concurrence of the legislative leadership, he committed to protect the property tax relief program.
After all of these tough choices have been made, we still face a $260 million deficit in our 2004 budget which, by law, must be balanced by June 30. Time is running out.
Over the next four years, we are committed to reforming the states spending habits and reducing non-essential services in a thoughtful manner. But a citizen Legislature than meets for just 40 days can only make arbitrary cuts to agencies, leaving it up to the bureaucracy to determine where cuts are made. That is not appropriate stewardship. We need to use a scalpel, not a meat ax, to resolve our fiscal crisis in a responsible way.
As we struggle to find further spending cuts, we stare reality in the face. College students are losing their scholarships in mid-year. Teachers are watching class sizes climb while getting no additional benefits or assistance. Disabled Georgians are losing critical services. Some nursing homes and hospitals may be forced to close their doors this summer.
And this is after the cuts that we have already made!
Unlike Washington, Georgia cannot print money or run a deficit. We cannot cut much more without being heartless. Nor can we borrow our way out of the red and shift the burden to our children.
As you know, Perdue has proposed a tax increase on tobacco and alcohol products, as part of his recommended budget for fiscal year 2004. This is a tough decision to make. I need your help! Under the governors proposal, tax increases in tobacco products will bring in $300-400 million of much-needed funds. If the Senate votes that proposal down, the extra cuts will have to come out of the states operating budget!
In this scenario, we will be facing a total cut of around 12 percent. The effects of these cuts will be felt statewide, and the 24th state Senate district could be hit especially hard. Even small cuts in the budget affect rural districts disproportionately.
There would be no satellite tech schools such as the one proposed for Columbia County. In fact, there could be as many as 11 satellite campuses closed.
We would probably be faced with closing Gracewood State Hospital and Augusta Regional Hospital. State parks will be closed, and probably several rural libraries.
The Department of Motor Vehicles would likely lose four new customer service centers, and we are looking at laying off as many as 150 state troopers. The new GBI lab in Augusta would not be staffed, university research funds would be cut, and nearly 1,000 positions at colleges and universities face elimination.
Student loans would be cut back drastically, and there would be a 24 percent reduction in medical scholarships. The Georgia Cities Program and Airport Aid Program would both be cut significantly, and the State Arts Grants eliminated.
We have tried not to affect student achievement in our proposed education budget. Still, we are looking at reduced supplements for principals and cuts in supplemental reading and math programs.
Funds will be slashed for new school buses, after-school programs, extended day programs and our own successful elementary foreign language program would be eliminated.
I want to support my governor and I believe he is trying to face a very difficult situation. However, I am also proud of having never voted for a tax increase. I was elected, in part, with a promise never to vote for tax hikes. I take that pledge very seriously, and I want to stand by it. However, I never thought we would face this situation.
This is the reality. The vote I will cast in about two weeks, whether for the governors package or the aforementioned cuts, will be based upon input from the citizens. My desire is to maintain essential services, tempered by fiscal responsibility. Please call or e-mail me with your suggestions or opinions.
I know that together we can help meet the challenges of todays economy and help to keep Georgia strong, as we work toward making this state the best in the nation.
(State Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, represents Georgias 24th District. He can be reached at 404-657-0406, by fax at 404-657-0797, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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