About the best possible outcome from the latest session of the Georgia General Assembly was that lawmakers would, for another year, find ways to keep the state treading water until better times take firm root.
All told, that’s pretty much where we ended up after all of the fits and lurches, lobbying and back-and-forth were done. Yes, legislators could have done better and done more. They could also have done worse.
To their credit, the mix of new and old leaders at the Gold Dome took decisive, if imperfect, action on several big issues facing this state and its capital city. On other important matters, lawmakers didn’t get the job done, meaning solutions will have to wait for another day. Such inaction may prove costly to Georgians.
One of the biggest challenges this year was the state budget, even as that important document remained largely in the shadows behind hotter topics. Given the constitutional need to balance the budget, its biggest surprise comes only in how much, or how little, is allocated to the essential business of the state.
The $18.3 billion budget approved this month by the Legislature is nothing if not austere. Among other things, Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers had to account for the departure of about $1 billion in federal stimulus money.
It’s popular these days to believe that there’s a nearly endless capacity for cutting spending, particularly when red-meat cries of “waste,” “fraud” and “abuse” are shouted by proponents of ever-smaller governance.
Yes, there’s often some validity to these oversimplified claims. Even so, the reasonable fact is that each year of recession-induced fiscal austerity has pushed us further down toward the threadbare carpet that marks the minimal floor of decent services expected by taxpayers. Given that $2.5 billion in state spending has been cut in recent years, by now we’ve got to be a lot closer to standing on that worn rug.
Georgia is getting by through penny-pinching and artful rearranging of budget line items, but too many more years of big cuts will leave this state increasingly unable to adequately meet important needs, such as education, that fuel our long-term prosperity.
And if the annual budget reflects the short term, then the long term is represented by the ongoing effort to improve how the state raises money for necessary services. The taxing apparatus and the philosophy behind it are a big chapter in Georgia’s operating manual for success. Or at least they should be.
That wasn’t the case this year after the state-commissioned report on tax reform was far less than warmly received. A late-session effort to cherry-pick and slam through a politically palatable mini-reform package thankfully crashed and burned in a pile of unpleasant data and tough taxing realities. As we wrote earlier, the state will be better off to begin a push to enact real tax reform starting in the early days of the 2012 session.
Next year, lawmakers should also resolve to move forward on another controversial issue – health care. A common-sense proposal offered this year would have enabled a health insurance exchange. They benefit members through volume-driven lower prices for policies. That makes it easier for people, such as small-business owners, to purchase needed coverage.
GOP leaders agreed to pull back the legislation under pressure from tea party activists who saw the measure as giving ground in the fight against federal health care legislation. That’s a short-sighted, unfortunate decision that will hit hardworking Georgians squarely in their pocketbooks. Lawmakers should work hard to explain this point to their constituents between now and the start of the next session.
Georgia should be leading the nation in establishing insurance pools, an idea long advocated by fiscal conservatives.
Another big missed opportunity was not acting on draft legislation to set up a new transit oversight agency for the Atlanta region. Approval this year would have given metro area planners more time to create a workable concept and explain it to voters far ahead of the 2012 vote. Not doing so unnecessarily requires us to play catch-up next year.
A redistricting session this summer will give legislators an extra opportunity to act on some unfinished business. They should weigh that against how best to do what’s right and necessary for the people of this state.
If that means waiting for the election year 2012, so be it. The hard calls won’t be any easier to make then, but they still must be made and made well.
Online at: ajc.com