This is not a fun time to be a state legislator in Georgia. You can see it in all the long faces in the House and Senate chambers. You can hear it in the committee rooms as lawmakers fret over the difficulty of dealing with constituents who keep complaining about services being cut.
With state government on the brink of a billion-dollar budget deficit, there's no money for lawmakers to pass around for those projects back home.
If that wasn't bad enough, the party atmosphere that had been so prevalent in past sessions has been dialed back. Now that a scandal involving a female lobbyist has swept out the top leadership in the House, everybody has to be on their best behavior - at least for a while.
The line you now hear about some of the lobbyists goes like this: the skirts are longer and the heels are shorter, and the blouses are buttoned all the way up.
The result of all this is that the people at the capitol are unhappier than they've been in a long time.
Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, who has been a legislator long enough to have served as both a Democrat and a Republican, observed: "It's kind of like Obama going to Washington: he looks around and sees all the problems and says, I got elected to what?'"
"I don't think it's unhappiness as much as I think it's concern about the budget," said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton. "You've still got to keep people in jail, you've still got to educate kids, no matter how low the budget is. There's a lot of worry not just about the budget for 2011, but the budget for 2012 and the budget for 2013."
Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, one of the longest-serving lawmakers, was around in 1991 when a similar financial crisis compelled then-governor Zell Miller to call a special legislative session to cut $600 million from the budget and lay off state employees.
"I think it's rougher (than in 1991)," Hooks said. "We cut from the high to the middle when Zell brought us back here. Now, we're cutting from the low to the very low."
You could get an idea of how serious the situation is becoming at the legislative budget hearings where department heads testified about the impact of the recession and the dropoff in state revenues.
State school Supt. Kathy Cox always went along like a good team player and didn't protest all those times when the governor and the legislature cut hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding to local school systems. But even Cox is now speaking out about the damage that's been done to public education.
"System by system, we have a lot of them teetering on the edge," Cox told the House and Senate appropriations committees. "We've had a lot of systems go into the red this year."
"We could have as many as 35 school systems that have come to the point of hitting the wall," said Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell. "They've got to make the choice of meeting a payroll or making their bond payments. That's a scary, scary situation."
Cox did not dispute Powell's estimate.
As bad as it is now, it certainly gets even worse next year. The General Assembly was only able to balance the last couple of budgets with the help of federal stimulus funds from Washington.
"As much as people cuss the stimulus program, it's saved our taxpayers a lot of money," Hooks said. "It's propped up education, Medicaid, DOT and kept them going."
When he presented his proposed budget to the appropriations committees, Gov. Sonny Perdue reminded them that the federal stimulus funds, which amounted to $1.4 billion this year, won't be there next year when they start working on the spending plan for fiscal year 2012.
The disappearance of stimulus dollars, combined with the costs of increased demand for Medicaid services and growing school enrollment, means that lawmakers could be dealing with a revenue shortfall of as much as $2.6 billion next year, Perdue estimated.
The governor noted that he'll be out of office by the time that particular bomb hits.
The members of the General Assembly won't be so lucky. They will have even more reason to be unhappy.
(Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com.)
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