Much of the Georgia Legislature's activity this year, understandably, has been spent trying to backfill the holes in the state's gaping budget deficit.
Unlike the federal government, which can freely run up debts and charge it to future citizens, the state government is constitutionally required to balance its budget. Lawmakers thus have been wringing their hands this session with shaving nearly $1 billion from the state budget to make up for recent plummeting revenues.
Even with such dire problems, however, lawmakers have been reluctant to make hard choices. Most of them immediately took any tax increases off the table, for example, even though it is patently foolish to reflexively rule out any options when balancing the books.
We don't want to raise taxes, either, but if a taxes on a traditionally undertaxed area - say, tobacco - could rise with a corresponding cut in an overtaxed area such as income or property, wouldn't that be worth a look?
And just this past week, lawmakers rejected the governor's sensible idea of merging the Board of Pardons and Paroles with the Department of Corrections. If they can't make even that simple move, hope for true reform might be fleeting.
But there is one bit of potential good news. Lawmakers are considering a proposal that would create the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians.
It's been compared to the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission. That agency was created to give cover to politicians too gutless to make hard choices about the best use of military funding. By taking the details of decisions out of the hands of lawmakers and giving them only an overall, up-or-down vote, BRAC insulates elected officials from the wrath of voters while shutting down or consolidating inefficient operations.
The state's new tax reform council, if approved, would undertake a top to bottom review of Georgia's taxes and deliver an all-or-nothing package of reforms to lawmakers.
Some observers are convinced the proposals would merely reward the well-connected who are represented in the council's membership. That's no different from the state's current tax code, which contains dozens of special-interest tax deductions.
Politicians lack the backbone to attack any of those exemptions individually - especially popular ones, like the sales tax exemption on food. The tax reform council, theoretically, could make those tough choices and allow lawmakers to approve meaningful, substantive, productive changes in Georgia's tax system.
Judging from the failure of the effort to combine two overlapping state agencies, the state might also also need a council to reform spending priorities. At least a committee looking at the revenue side of things is a good start.
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