At a time when Georgia is facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and has to deal with a budget deficit of $2 billion or more, what has been the response of our political leadership?
Let’s put it this way: there is definitely room for improvement.
The Legislative Services Committee, whose membership includes the top leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives, voted last week to defer a 3 percent cost-of-living pay increase that lawmakers were scheduled to receive in 2009. They made it sound as if they were making a huge personal sacrifice for Georgia’s taxpayers.
"As we face tremendous budget challenges, it is appropriate that we do our part," said Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), the outgoing Senate president pro tem who plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2010.
How much of a sacrifice are we really talking about? Deferring the salary increase will cost each lawmaker about $525 next year — or about $124,000 total for the entire General Assembly. The budget now exceeds $21 billion a year, so the legislative reduction will amount to less than one-thousandth of one percent of total state spending.
As my accountant friend would say, that’s not even a rounding error. It’s certainly a nice symbolic gesture, but it won’t get you close to making up a $2 billion budget deficit.
The legislative leadership could have made a bigger dent in state spending if they had called a special session during the fall and started some serious discussions about which programs should be cut and which should be retained.
They declined to call a special session prior to Nov. 4 because they were all running for reelection to another two-year term. That’s an understandable reason for not acting on the budget crisis. The problem is, they also declined to call a special session after election day, apparently thinking they can just let the state’s problems drag on while the economy goes deeper into the tank.
Evidently, a deferred pay raise is the most we’re going to see from our lawmakers. How about the state’s chief executive, Gov. Sonny Perdue?
His department heads are actually talking about budget cuts and one of them resulted in the closing of an assisted living facility in Milledgeville where more than 80 military veterans were trying to live out their final years. The veterans were told to find new residences by Thanksgiving, because after that they would be evicted.
The savings to the state from shutting down that veterans’ facility totaled about $2.7 million. It seems like a harsh way to save a few dollars, but these are hard times we’re facing and sometimes budget cuts are going to hurt people. There’s just no way to avoid that reality.
Of course, Perdue could have saved even more money if he had canceled the ill-fated "Go Fish" program that he announced last year to great fanfare.
This initiative, which will cost taxpayers at least $19 million, authorized the construction of larger docks and boat ramps at state reservoirs in hopes that the new facilities would attract bass fishing tournaments. It was a great idea, Perdue claimed, that would boost tourism and make Georgia a destination state for all those people who just can’t get enough professional bass fishing.
Perdue had the misfortune of proposing this wonderful idea at the same time that a record-setting drought swept across the state, dropping the water levels in reservoirs to historic lows.
Two fishing tournaments that had been planned at Lake Lanier were cancelled because of the drought and the boost in tourism spending that Go Fish would bring about doesn’t seem to have happened. But that hasn’t stopped Perdue from plunging ahead with plans to build a new visitors center and hatchery to support the fishing program in Houston County. The cynical among us would note that Houston also happens to be the county where Perdue was born, raised, and first elected to the Legislature.
So, with the next session of the General Assembly soon upon us, here’s the tally on how our political leadership is dealing with a huge budget deficit: they’ve deferred a small pay raise for legislators and they’ve kicked 81 veterans out of an assisted living facility.
That would reduce the budget deficit to about $1,997,000,000. I’m sure they’ll be able to take care of that with little trouble.
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 .