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Is it time for optimism on the economy?

Posted: Sunday, August 23, 2009

Georgia's labor commissioner, Michael Thurmond, has seen the effects of the recession up close and personal.

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His agency handles the applications from laid-off workers who are filing unemployment claims, makes sure those jobless benefits are paid, and tries as best it can to match the workers to whatever jobs might still be available.

The labor department also records the monthly unemployment statistics that only seem to be getting worse: from the state's 9.2 percent rate in March to 9.3 percent in April, 9.7 percent in May, and 10.1 percent in June.

In the midst of this gloom and doom, Thurmond thinks there are signs that the worst recession in more than 70 years might finally be bottoming out. He bases his optimism on the recent trends in applications filed for jobless benefits.

During the past eight or nine months, the number of initial unemployment claims filed with the Labor Department has been skyrocketing. These applications increased by 174 percent last December, 80 percent in January, 111 percent in February and 126 percent in March.

That meant a lot of Georgia-based businesses were laying off people last winter and spring as the economy was reaching a low point not seen in this country for several generations.

The trend started to level off somewhat after the peak increases during the December-March period, Thurmond noted. The monthly increases in jobless claims have been slowly declining since then and were down to 58.9 percent for July, the first time since last November that the monthly increase was below the 60-percent level.

That's not anything to celebrate, but Thurmond believes the declining growth in jobless numbers is a sign that not as many people are becoming the victims of corporate layoffs.

"Fewer people are being laid off," he said. "The problem is, if you don't have a job, you're still going to have a hard time finding a new one."

There are other indications that suggest our state's situation is at least getting less bad, if not better.

Take a look at the monthly numbers compiled by the Georgia revenue department. These revenue collection results will tell you whether people are actually going to work again (check the column on individual income taxes) and whether consumers are starting to buy more products from Target, Walmart, and other retailers (see the sales tax totals).

The revenue department's report for July was still in negative territory, with overall tax collections decreasing by 9.6 percent, sales tax collections dropping by 9.7 percent, and individual income tax revenues down by 8.4 percent.

As bad as they were, the July numbers were a marked improvement over the monthly results from earlier in the year when revenues dropped by 34.8 percent in February, 14.5 percent in March, and 20.6 percent in April.

I would not suggest that the hard times have ended. State Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, a savvy legislator who understands the budget as well as anyone in the General Assembly, recently estimated that Georgia's revenues could decline by 8 percent or more during the current fiscal year.

That is not as bad as the fiscal year we just wrapped up, but it would still require some extensive cutbacks in the state budget to keep it balanced.

The best way to handle those badly needed budget modifications would be for lawmakers to come back to Atlanta for a special session this fall and decide which programs could be cut with the least harm to Georgia's citizens.

Unfortunately, political courage seems to be in short supply these days. The legislative leadership has not made a move toward calling a special session and has, in effect, told Gov. Sonny Perdue to cut the budget however he wants and take the heat from constituents. Lawmakers will just rubberstamp it when they come back into session next January.

Economic recovery? I would like to think we're getting closer to one. It would be great if Georgia had a political leadership with the intestinal fortitude to make the hard decisions that are needed at a time like this, but we'll have to scrape by with what we've got.

I don't know that I'm feeling as optimistic as Michael Thurmond, but I do hope he's right about the signs of a recovery.

(Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia.)



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