Governor-elect Nathan Deal said operating on a balanced budget will be a priority. In a recent address, he said he believes voters “want us to ask the hard questions of government that they have to ask in their farms, in their small businesses” and other enterprises.
Representative Rick Crawford, 16th District, and Senator Bill Heath, 31st District, agree that the budget will be a major issue. On the budget front, the federal stimulus funds are now gone, as are most one-time funds that were shifted money from various reserve funds. While state revenue collections have been up slightly the past several months, officials do not believe it will be enough to close the gap.
“I'm expecting somewhere in the range of another $2 billion to have to be cut in 2011, so it's going to be another tough budget cycle,” Crawford said.
He said he has no problem making cuts since that is what families do in tough times, and it is what government must do.
According to Crawford, the real issue with making cuts will be getting priorities in order. He said Governor-elect Deal has already stated publicly that he intends to propose further cuts to education.
“Since that is the largest single area of the budget, I understand why it would be considered,” he said. “However, in the past couple of years our present leadership has pushed through a program of tax credits that subsidize private schools. As might be expected, much of the benefit goes to upscale private schools in Atlanta with large, wealthy donor bases. Thus, we are continuing to hand out millions of dollars a year in tax credits to subsidize private schools even while we furlough teachers and make large cuts to public schools.”
He said he would not support a budget that makes further cuts to education unless these tax credits are terminated. He said he believes it represents misplaced priorities to suggest that Georgia can not afford to fund public schools but can afford to divert millions of tax dollars to support private schools.
Crawford advocates an overhaul of the current tax system, but emphasized it is important to get it right. He predicts, based on what has been presented so far, the proposal will fall somewhere along the lines of expanding the sales tax, such as adding it to groceries and services, while cutting income taxes, especially corporate taxes.
“I won't be taking a position on this until I have had the opportunity to read the bill and study the details,” he said. “My concern is that it will end up tracking some of the things that have been pushed recently. For example, last session the leadership pushed through dramatic changes in the income taxes paid by senior citizens. I still find that many people are shocked at what this legislation will do when fully phased-in.”
Officials agree that education funding and the HOPE scholarship program will also be an issue during this session. This year marks the first time that reserve funds will have to be used to fund the HOPE scholarship program. Projections are that this trend will get worse in the next few years. Therefore, action will be taken in an attempt to shore up the finances of this popular program.
Initially HOPE scholarships were not available to children of high-income families. This was in keeping with Gov. Zell Miller's concept of a scholarship program to make sure that good students would not be denied the opportunity to go to college because their families couldn't afford to pay for it.
Crawford said he expects the debate to shape up along those lines, but indicated that it is too early to guess how the specifics will develop.
Senator Bill Heath said the number one request he hears from constituents is for government to reduce spending.
He pointed out that there is a Balanced Budget Amendment in Georgia, but the federal government continues to spend itself into further debt.
“The citizens of this country just can’t bear anymore debt and don’t have the revenue to pay additional taxes,” he said. “We will work diligently in Georgia to ensure that we balance the state budget by living within our means, not by raising taxes.”
Budget cuts will be made again this year, Heath said. All areas are under scrutiny and subject to additional cuts.
“This session, we must reduce spending by $1.5 to $2 billion,” he said. “That is a great deal of money but I am confident we can do it without raising taxes. As a matter of fact, we must do it without raising taxes. We cannot, in good conscience, add to our citizens’ financial burden during these difficult economic times.”
Heath emphasized that education takes up too much of the budget to ignore as spending reductions is made. He also believes that the formula of our education system needs to be reviewed so that schools can better plan.
Points made included the fact that Georgia spends more on education per student and teachers are paid more on average than any neighboring states. In addition, there is a higher teacher/student ratios than any nearby state.
“It is time we make sure our state’s education plan is solid so we know we are getting our money’s worth,” Heath said.
Transportation and funding are also subjects that draw comment from people in Georgia. However, Heath noted that most of the congestion problems are in the metro area because it has the highest density of people. This means most of the road money is spent in there.
“I hear few complaints about state roads in Haralson and Polk,” he said. “When I hear complaints from the rural areas, they relate to county roads.”
Heath is also aware that Methamphetamine continues to be a major problem, which is directly related to other crimes in many areas of Georgia.
“Sealing the nation’s borders would be a major improvement on our illegal drug problem as most of the drugs are coming from Mexico,” he said.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Immigration Reform, he hopes hope to see vital immigration reform passed in order to protect Georgians from the high price paid for “those who come to our country illegally and use our state’s valuable resources at the cost of hard working citizens.”