Legislature To Face Unusual Budget Situation This Session

Last week’s Courier Herald column:

As the calendar turns to the second week of January, Georgia’s eyes begin to look to Atlanta.  Some are looking for leadership in problem solving, some are looking for campaign fodder, and some are emulating NASCAR fans just hoping for a big crash.  The annual meeting of the Georgia General Assembly attracts spectators of all kinds.

Before diving into the various sideshows – and it is an election year, there will be sideshows – let’s discuss the main event.  Georgia’s legislators’ singular constitutional requirement is that they must pass a balanced budget every year.  This year’s budget process will be a little different.

Georgia’s budget writers spent a decade digging out of the great recession.  They managed to focus increasing spending on priority items during that time, with increasing education spending the top priority every year and then allocating as fiscally prudent to other priorities like transportation, Medicaid and healthcare, and shoring up the state’s various retirement systems. 

Just as these targeted areas had hit their stride and the rainy day fund had been filled, Covid hit.  Two years ago, these same budget writers returned to cutting even in areas that needed more spending to achieve objectives.  The rainy day fund was opened up to ease the burden while delivering a massive state response to Covid.

Then, Washington started writing checks.  A lot of them.  Much of that money flowed to the state, as well as local school districts, cities, and counties.  These funds came with strings, which brings us back to this year’s budget picture.

The state has literal billions – about seven billion the last time I checked – that it needs to spend this year on top of the approximate $28 billion recurring expenditures in the baseline budget.  The rainy day fund is full.  Federal rules on Georgia accepting much of that money is dependent on it not being used for tax cuts.

You would think that after a decade of saying “No” to almost every extraneous budget request that the budget committees would be looking forward to playing Santa Claus with a sleigh filled with billions to hand out.  In reality, they’re not. 

Everyone has a wish list, and every interest group is aware that there is money on the table.  The number of times they’re going to have to say “no” will increase exponentially for every “yes” that is funded.

So where is the money going to go?  The safe bet is that teachers, as usual, will be at the front of the line.  Governor Kemp made across the board raises part of his campaign in 2018 and as he faces reelection he will make good on completing what remains of his pledge.

You can expect that the state’s law enforcement officers will also be taken care of.  Like all professions, it’s getting harder and harder to find workers.  LEO’s have seen the demands on their services increase, while some jurisdictions have advocated “defunding”.  Expect continued legislation beyond raises to address increasing crime rates and gang activity.

A related priority will be a focus on the state’s mental health system.  House Speaker David Ralston has stated this as a major goal – one that should be able to attract bipartisan support.

The billions being doled out won’t go as far as most would like.  The cost of governing isn’t immune to the inflation that has hit each of our kitchen tables.  The costs of infrastructure projects are increasing, and labor for all state agencies is harder to come by.  It will cost more just to maintain the status quo.

Which brings us back to the sideshows and it being a campaign year.  Several statewide candidates have decided to recycle unwritten plans to eliminate the state’s income tax.  It’s a shallow appeal to those who believe we can “be like Florida or Texas” without – you know – us being Florida or Texas.

We’ll once again have to address several columns to this canard over the weeks and months ahead.  The challenge to each of these candidates must be direct:  Show your work.

The strings on the Federal money allow some wiggle room for tax relief, but the sideshow artists will complain that there’s too much spending, and all of it should go to eliminating the state’s income tax.  They should be forced at every mention of this to explain, in great detail, exactly how their “plan” will work.

The problem with sideshows is that they distract those with responsibility for driving safely.  They’re doing little more than helping set up the crash that many are watching and waiting, even hoping for.

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