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Fun with numbers: Pork and red meat

ATLANTA -- As far as throwing red meat to the crowds, last week's proposal from the Democrats isn't likely to spark a frenzy.

But then this year's budget proposals have been modest all the way around. Preparing how to spend nearly $17 billion of taxpayer money often inspires creativity, daring and political conniving. Budgets are the one must-pass piece of legislation each year, which makes them a vehicle for dreams, of sorts, as well as a pressure cooker for the leadership which has to negotiate a compromise that will win a majority in both chambers.

During the cash-flush days of the late 1990s, budgeting was really fun. Both parties regularly made grand proposals -- PeachCare for Kids, say from the Democrats, and tax refunds from Republicans. And individual lawmakers got in on the act by requesting money for local projects that the legislative leadership would smoke over, deciding which city ball field or district library to bless with the state's munificence.

The more money projected to come in, the more hands that were out hoping for some of the bounty. Then turmoil in the telecom, tourism and transportation economies pooped tax collections, making budget writing drudgery. Special-interest lobbyists lowered their sights. Legislators told their folks back home not to expect much pork in their barrels, and the political parties reined in their imaginations.

Terry Coleman, the long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one-term speaker, has said that everyone senses the futility in making big spending proposals in tight-money years, which removes much of the political tension.

This year, though, the state has a little more money. Gov. Sonny Perdue, by law, sets the revenue estimate that the budget must be balanced against, and he's predicting roughly $1 billion in added income.

Before he presented his outline for spending it, he said the budget would give policymakers a chance to relax their grip on the purse strings a little and fund some initiatives they'd been putting off.

Much of the increased money will have to go to cover increased costs in current commitments, such as various medical programs and funding school construction.

Perdue also proposed adding money for a 2-percent raise for public employees, including teachers and professors; an online "virtual" high school; 4,000 more pre-kindergarten slots; hiring 500 social workers; and implementation of the recommendations from the Commission for a New Georgia, his hand-picked corporate executives who're suggesting ways to better run the government.

Pretty tame stuff. It's unlikely anyone will erect a statue to the Father of 500 Social Workers. He acknowledges as much. "I think doing things that affect people's lives is more important than announcing some grand scheme, having a photo opp, and nothing happens," he said earlier this month.

In the same vein, Republican legislators moved money around a little and came up with grant to schools of $5 per pupil. Considering the total cost to educate the average pupil for a year is around $4,500, the $5 isn't going to inspire plans for any statues either.

House Republicans also want to take advantage of low interest rates to up the amount of bond borrowing in the mid-year budget adjustment to finance a few construction projects that Perdue was willing to get to later.

House Appropriations Vice Chairman Bob Smith of Watkinsville said, "I know real estate, and I know you need to take advantage of cheap money while it's available."

Across the hall in the Senate, Republican leaders there concluded it's not the right time. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill of Reidsville said an accounting snafu that is postponing the state's bond sales until this summer means the borrowing the House seeks would be delayed until after the end of the fiscal year.

Since the authorization to sell bonds doesn't end just because the fiscal year does, Hill didn't offer his real reason but was probably just searching for a polite way to say he disagrees with his colleagues in the lower chamber.

"We don't pass on the value or importance of any of those projects," he said two weeks ago when the Senate voted on its version of the mid-year budget adjustment.

And that brings us to the Democrats. They have plenty of criticism of the Republicans' handiwork. They say it should restore money to programs that suffered "austerity" cuts in the last few budget years when spending was trimmed in mid year after the funds had been appropriated. At the same time, they warn the state's reserves need to be replenished from the 0.4 percent of tax collections it had sunk to at the end of the last fiscal year back up to the peak of 5 percent of budget years 2001 and 2002.

Perdue says he's being accused of stinginess and free spending at the same time. This week, the Democrats announced their own budget initiative, accelerating the state-employee pay raise three months. They even showed Wednesday how they would pay for it, a level of detail not common to opposition press releases. Simple, take money from many of Perdue's own initiatives.

Since minority-party proposals aren't likely to prevail anyway, they didn't have to be constrained by prudence, but they're still in the habit of practicality from the decades when their ideas really did have to be realistic. Still, that's not much red meat to toss to the employees union.

When the most ambitious idea coming from an opposition press conference is to marginally advance a marginal pay raise, it's evident that the days of budget-writing fun haven't returned.

The annual budget process is in midstream. A conference committee from both chambers is negotiating an agreeable version of the mid-year adjustment for the current fiscal year. The "big budget" which spells out the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 still hasn't emerged from the House Appropriations Committee.

At last check, there wasn't a stockpile of empty barrels there waiting to be filled with salt pork, and very little laughter was heard coming from the meeting rooms.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. His column will appear periodically in The McDuffie Mirror. He can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or

Web posted on Thursday, March 3, 2005


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Updated: 04-Nov-2010 10:01

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