Everyone jokes about state Rep. Ben Harbin carrying around the state's checkbook as chairman of the Georgia House Appropriations Committee.
Expect a lot fewer checks to come out of that checkbook this year. And expect the ones that are written to be smaller.
The Georgia Legislature convenes Monday for a session in which the state's budget problems will be the 800-pound gorilla in the room that everyone will be forced to talk about.
Forget all the previous years' nonsense about registration details for sex offenders, or one lawmaker's new idiotic idea for forcing bullet manufacturers to put a serial number on each one.
Instead, the only bills likely to get any attention or traction this year are those either cutting spending or raising revenue. Or, in rare cases, both.
With the state facing a budget cut of $2 billion - that's "billion," with a "b," as in the number of footsteps it would take to walk the distance to the moon and back - all the lawmakers talking the talk of fiscal conservatism are going to have to learn to walk the walk, too.
Harbin, who will be faced with shepherding the budget through the House, says "looking conservative won't be hard this year."
To illustrate, he tells the story of Gov. Sonny Perdue speaking to members of the Republican Caucus. "He asked everyone, 'How many of you campaigned on less government and less spending?' Everybody raised their hands. He said, 'All right, this year you're going to get your chance.'
"Everybody laughs," Harbin says, "but I don't think it's hit them yet on what they're about to have to vote on."
Simply put, the state is going to be faced with real budget cuts. State employees will lose their jobs. Schools will lose funding. Programs will be eliminated.
Fiscal conservatives won't complain. For example, Harbin has long sought to get the state out of the golf-course business. He points out that the state spends $4.5 million each year to operate golf courses; it takes in just $3 million in revenue.
Losing $1.5 million per year isn't much in a total state budget, like 2008's, of $21 billion. But a few million for golf courses here and a few million for little-used Sports Hall of Fame there, and pretty soon we're talking real money.
"We don't have the luxury anymore of funding things just because we like having them," Harbin says.
Incidentally, for those in Augusta with an eye on turning the now-closed Augusta Golf and Gardens into a baseball stadium? Harbin points out that the property is still owned by the cash-strapped state: "We're not giving that land away," he vows.
Help for Greenbrier
Harbin, who is conversely the dean of the legislative delegation and its youngest member, will be focused almost exclusively on the state budget. But he also has some local issues.
One of them will be familiar to Evans High fans.
If you remember, the good old Georgia High School Association reclassified schools by population a few years ago, sending Evans into what then was the largest classification at AAAA. It then put Evans into a region that had players riding buses for hours to and from games.
Harbin and other officials worked to get the school some relief, and eventually the GHSA approved changes that helped somewhat, and set up a new classification system.
Unfortunately, Greenbrier is now in that highest level at AAAAA, and its athletes are forced into long road trips.
And next year it will be even worse for competition when Grovetown High School opens and takes away part of Greenbrier's population. Greenbrier will be small enough to compete in AAAA, but will face long bus rides against larger AAAAA foes.
It's not the biggest issue facing the state right now. But for Greenbrier's student-athletes, it's huge. Kudos to Harbin for trying to help.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
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