In normal times, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson would not have anything to do with drafting the state budget.
They are United State senators who generally stay in Washington and vote on federal issues. The governor and the General Assembly pass and implement the budget for state government.
These are not normal times, however. Chambliss and Isakson are working with their Republican colleagues in the Senate to advance a political strategy that may be good for their party but could also end up wrecking the state budget.
Last week, the Senate was considering a bill that would extend the flow of federal funds to the states to help pay for such things as unemployment insurance benefits and Medicaid treatments.
Senate Democrats have been trying to pass this bill for several weeks. Senate Republicans, who believe that blocking the bill will help them in this fall’s elections, mounted a filibuster to prevent a vote on the measure.
On the final attempt to stop the filibuster, the vote was 57-41 in favor of moving to a vote on the bill. But that motion needs 60 votes to pass, so Senate Republicans maintained their filibuster and prevented the bill from passing. Isakson and Chambliss were among the 41 senators voting for the filibuster.
Isakson and Chambliss effectively stopped the payment of unemployment benefits to Georgians who have been out of work for so long that they have used up their eligibility. By blocking the legislation, they also threatened to blow a $375 million hole in the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
That’s because the bill would have provided state governments with $16 billion in additional Medicaid funds — with Georgia in line to get $375 million of that amount.
Georgia’s $17.9 billion budget for fiscal year 2011, in fact, assumes that Congress will approve the extension of Medicaid funding and includes the $375 million in federal money.
Unless the Senate somehow overcomes the Republican filibuster and passes the bill, Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Legislature will have to find $375 million in new revenues or cut Medicaid benefits by $375 million in the middle of a difficult fiscal year.
Without the federal funding extension, Perdue probably will be required to call a special session of a lame-duck General Assembly to modify the budget. Lawmakers would then have to make deep cuts in Medicaid spending, which in turn would mean throwing patients off the Medicaid rolls and forcing hospitals to lay off employees or close their doors.
Isakson and Chambliss contend that their votes to block the bill were justified because of concerns over federal spending and the budget.
"The country is running an enormous deficit and we cannot afford to add another $35 billion in spending to it," Isakson said after voting for the filibuster.
There are also political considerations at play here. It may well be a winning strategy for Republicans to block spending bills, especially if that keeps the jobless rate high and hampers any economic recovery. That would make voters angry at the Democratic majority in Congress, which could be an advantage for Republican candidates in November.
On the other hand, if they do not allow a vote on extended Medicaid funding, Chambliss and Isakson are going to cause major budget problems for their Republican friends in the governor’s office and the Legislature. Is that really what they want to do?
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.