State In Unusual Position Of Having Extra Billions To Spend

This week’s Courier Herald column:

In the 1985 movie Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor’s character had to spend thirty million dollars in thirty days in order to inherit three hundred million dollars.  There were a few catches.  He couldn’t own anything of value at the end, he couldn’t gift the money to anyone or charity, and he couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing.

The 2021 sequel is playing out in real time. Adding alliteration in the title requires use of Governor Kemp’s name informally, but “Brian’s Billions” is about to be a real thing. 

The Federal Government is sending Georgia $4.8 Billion in American Rescue Plan funding.  It can’t be used for tax cuts.  The process that will determine who gets the money will have a one-month window for applications.  Unlike the challenge in the movie, everyone will know there are unappropriated billions up for grabs.

The reality will be that there will be a lot less slapstick comedy and a lot more thoughtful and collaborative discussion and debate as to how Georgia spends these funds.  To that end, Governor Kemp announced this week three committees that will review applications, with each committee focused on a specific area.

There will be a committee focused on enhancing Georgia’s broadband infrastructure.  There will be another group reviewing Georgia’s water and sewer infrastructure needs.  The third and most broad scope will go to the committee evaluating projects that fall within economic development.

All three groups, co-branded as the Georgia Jobs and Infrastructure Committees, will begin receiving applications on August 1st.  The deadline to submit an application for consideration will be August 31st.  The targeted date to announce plans for the grants is the week of October 18th, though additional guidance from the Federal Government could alter any dates in the proposed timeline.

Committee members chosen by the Governor are generally a mix of commissioners and agency heads from the executive branch, as well as committee chairmen and those with subject matter expertise from the legislature.  Of specific note, both Appropriations Committee chairmen, Representative Terry England and Senator Blake Tillery, will be on all three committees.

They will be able to help the committees decipher these requests for one-time allocations against current baselines.  Perhaps more importantly, they should also be able to caution when some of these “one-time” grants may require additional tax revenues in the future to support or maintain the initial investment.

What is somewhat unique is that this is the first time in well over a decade that state agencies and legislators have been handed a blank sheet of paper and asked for a dream list.  As Georgia emerged from the great recession, roughly half of the revenue growth each year was used to restore austerity cuts to education.  The rest of the money was mostly used to plug budget holes elsewhere, with a few major initiatives making the cut here and there.

Covid interrupted the growth of the budget, briefly.  The state’s fiscal year ended June 30th, and when the final revenue numbers are released, there will likely be a record amount of surplus funds to be dealt with in January, on top of the $4.8 Billion allocated by these committees.

Committee members will undoubtedly receive all kinds of unsolicited advice on how to spend this money.  They also know that a state that spends almost $30 Billion per year will quickly find there are many times more requests than the available funds to meet them.  Five billion dollars just don’t go as far as it used to.

Still, it’s a lot of money for a state that has been quite thrifty for a while.  The only advice I will offer with my own kibitzing is this:  Be aspirational.

Whether it be 1,000 small projects or three to five large ones, change the game somewhere in a noticeable way.  We’ve had more than a decade of incremental improvement and rebuilding Georgia’s fiscal house. 

The rainy day fund held during our last storm.  The reserves are again full.  There are funds remaining that must be spent.

It’s a great problem to have.  I look forward to seeing the results, and how they will benefit Georgia and Georgians.

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