There are times when it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed in the morning. Last week was such a time for Georgia’s citizens and the people they elect to make their political decisions.
The most depressing development of the week was the announcement from the state Department of Labor that Georgia’s unemployment rate hit a whopping 8.6 percent. That’s the highest jobless rate since 1976, when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics standardized unemployment rates among all the states.
There now are more than 412,000 unemployed Georgians looking for work, an increase of 62.9 percent over the same month a year ago. Of that number, 183,829 of them are receiving unemployment insurance benefits.
"We are officially sailing in uncharted economic waters," Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond observed.
Thurmond, not unreasonably, was looking to the federal government for help in cushioning the blows to Georgia’s unemployed workers. The economic stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama would mean the infusion of $220 million into Georgia’s unemployment trust fund, which would help keep it from running out of money and would pay jobless benefits for a lot of laid off workers.
Gov. Sonny Perdue, however, was balking at that. Like several of his Republican cohorts among the nation’s governors, Perdue said he might refuse the unemployment money because it could, at some point two or three years from now, force him to raise taxes on business. If laid off workers can’t get unemployment benefits in the meantime, well, that’s just too bad.
On the same day that the news broke of Georgia’s record unemployment level, the General Assembly added its own financial burden to the state’s citizens. House members voted for final passage of SB 31, legislation that will allow the Georgia Power Co. to start charging ratepayers early for the construction of nuclear power units at Plant Vogtle over in the eastern part of the state (Perdue is expected to sign the bill quickly).
Georgia Power will be able to start collecting $1.6 billion in project financing charges in 2011, at least six years before the nuclear plants are scheduled to be completed. The money will be assessed by Georgia Power in the form of a surcharge on your monthly power bill.
Let’s call this what it really is: the Legislature has granted Georgia Power the authority to collect what amounts to a $1.6 billion tax increase, one of the largest tax increases in the state’s history. No other business or corporate entity has been given this huge grant of authority to reach into your pockets and extract your money — but Georgia Power will be able to do it.
It is questionable whether this would be advisable when the economy was prosperous, but it really seems like a bad idea at a time when we’re facing the worst recession in 70 years and state unemployment has just hit an all-time high.
One point we’ve heard over and over from conservatives is that taxes should be as low as possible so that citizens can make the best personal decisions about how they will spend their own money.
The conservative Republicans running the legislature, however, voted overwhelmingly to allow Georgia Power to take your money and use a large portion of it to guarantee profits for their shareholders. Whose interests are being served here?
As the week came to a close, one other name was added to Georgia’s list of unemployed: DOT Commissioner Gena Evans was dumped by the members of the State Transportation Board, who voted to fire her from the job she has held for 17 months.
Evans was the personal choice of Perdue to run the sprawling DOT agency, which has had its share of financial problems. She was constantly in the news for embarrassing disclosures about her personal life, a series of controversies that eventually caught up with her.
Perdue is now supporting the passage of legislation that will deemphasize the role of the State Transportation Board and replace it with a new State Transportation Authority largely run by the governor.
If the General Assembly can pass that bill quickly enough, Evans may be able to return as the head of the new transportation agency. If so, she’ll be one of the few who came out of that bad week as a winner.
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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.