By Adam Hewitt
Special to the Progress
When state lawmakers open the 2011 session of the Georgia Legislature in early January, the tough economy and its brutal impact on tax revenues will be the top concern on everyone’s mind. Even after multiple rounds of budget cuts since the financial crisis hit in 2008, state officials are bracing for more.
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month, Gov.-elect Nathan Deal warned that even more hard choices lay ahead for K-12 education funding, the single-biggest component of the state budget: “Both funding sources, both state and local, are under severe attack in terms of the pressure that is being felt. The reality is there are going to be tough choices again on K-12 education budgets again this year. There’s no way around that,” lamented Deal. K-12 education accounts for a little over half of the state’s budget.
The budget pain comes in spite of the fact that state revenues have actually been increasing in the last several months. In November, the state collected $80 million in additional taxes over the same period in 2009, an increase of 7.4 percent. But federal stimulus money runs out this summer, which is why there will be more budget tightening.
In fact, the fiscal mess could be worse than most think, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill (R-Reidsville). In a recent interview with radio station WABE, Hill warned that the state budget for fiscal year 2012, which starts on July 1, 2011, would be at about $2 billion as things currently stand.
Because the state government is legally required to have a balanced budget, either taxes must be raised or spending must be trimmed.
But with Republicans strengthening their numbers in the elections last month – they grew their majorities in both the Georgia House and the Georgia Senate – it is doubtful there will be any major push for tax increases.
According to Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper), the public is in no mood for more taxes: “As I talk to people in my community, I hear them saying, ‘We want government smaller.’ Our [lawmakers’] role is not to increase people’s taxes, and we’re not going to.”
Though the state’s budget woes will be the big deal in the 2011 General Assembly, there are other issues lawmakers will have to wrangle with. The ongoing water war with Alabama, Florida, and most-recently Tennessee, will command attention. Many legislators believe constructing a system of new reservoirs is the only way to keep the state from experiencing a crippling water shortage, and stunted growth, in the future. “We have to address building reservoirs,” explains Jasperse.
Problems with the popular HOPE scholarship, which pays college tuition for Georgia students with a B-or-higher average, must also be tackled. Currently, lottery funds used to support HOPE are not enough to cover outflows. So lawmakers are looking at raising the GPA requirement to get an award, as well as eliminating the textbook allowance altogether.
[Hewitt is a freelance writer who contributes occasional columns on state government to the Progress.]