Georgia lawmakers, including all state representatives from our area, are now facing the reality that comes from their stand against a tobacco-tax increase: To make up for the lost state revenue in a tough economic year, the states budget will have to be severely cut.
No tax increase? Cut the state budget? Sounds pretty good.
Until we find that such cuts could mean more Columbia County children going to class in portable buildings because there are no state funds for new school construction. Or that older students will still have to travel to Augusta or Thomson because there is no money for construction of a satellite Augusta Tech campus in Grovetown. Or that the countys greenspace program could come to a halt because no more money is available to protect land from overdevelopment.
When they rejected Gov. Sonny Perdues plan to raise tobacco taxes, state representatives decided to forgo an estimated $348 million in revenue that would have helped make up for a $400-$600 million shortfall in Georgias 2004 budget. Without that extra money, House Appropriations Committee members - including state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans - have already cut the greenspace program, and are looking at cuts to school-construction programs and a delay in other education spending as ways to plug the gap. (Unlike the federal budget, Georgia cant run a deficit.)
Like it or not, the tobacco tax remains the best alternative.
Harbin, who voted against it, suggests that such a tax would be more palatable if its revenue were spent directly on the states swelling health-care costs.
That make the tax easier for conservatives to swallow, but it wouldnt prevent their opponents from beating them up for raising taxes in the next election. And that, in a nutshell, is why every local elected official chickened out when the tobacco tax came up for a vote.
Never mind that Perdues companion alcohol tax was killed by powerful industry lobbyists long before it reached the Legislature. The tobacco tax increase was modest, and carried the potential benefit of deterring price-sensitive youths from smoking. No matter how sensible, few lawmakers from either party were brave enough to vote in favor of what amounts to a user fee on drug addicts.
A scaled-down tobacco tax hike - which still includes a first-ever tax on smokeless tobacco - may come back up for a House vote this week. Its an opportunity for lawmakers to make a choice between raising revenue painlessly, or spreading real pain through deep cuts to state programs.
Voting against the tobacco tax increase may indeed save lawmakers from being accused of raising taxes in the next election. But theyll have to explain why little Johnnys class still has to meet in a trailer.
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