The annual onset of state government’s budgeting season is an ideal time for a step-back assessment of what’s best for Georgia in a new year and beyond.
Georgia is a growing, dynamic state and an increasingly influential actor in national and even global affairs. A top-line thought for all should be what’s required to keep us there.
It’s also important to realize fully all of the steps and elements that helped set this state on an upward trajectory and keep it there for decades running.
We’d submit that a broad strategy that’s long paid off for the private sector has also worked well for Georgia, the state. Yes, keeping a tight rein on spending is an important base from which to build success. And we’ve done that. For example, the head count of state employees is 16.5 percent lower than five years ago.
But cutting taxes is only part of the story. That should not be forgotten. As business leaders know — sometimes from learning it the hard, ruinous way — shrinking to greatness rarely works as a standalone strategy. The front-runners among states and companies alike succeed because they shrewdly know when and where to both save and invest.
For Georgia, that means finding a fiscal way and the political will to run a lean government, while ensuring that we are building and maintaining the infrastructure backbone needed to support and fuel growth. We’ve mastered the first half of this formula, but we have a good ways to go yet to accomplish the latter. This last point cannot be forgotten, especially in an election year.
The good news is that a recovering economy should help us get there — if Georgia’s elected leaders make the right choices about where to scrimp and spend.
Which brings us to Gov. Nathan Deal’s recent State of the State speech. It begins the work of arriving at the state’s constitutionally mandated balanced budget.
Deal proudly observed in his address to the Legislature that, “according to Tax Foundation, Georgia has the lowest tax burden on its citizens of any state in the nation.”
That certainly has merit, but it’s also a point poorly considered in isolation.
Consider, too, that Georgia ranks a sorry 49th among states in transportation investment. And we’ve been there awhile. As a result, we all pay a real, if unseen tax, measured in both wasted fuel and efficiency in our personal and business lives.
Yet the General Assembly is taking an I-285-at-rush-hour slow-motion approach toward finding new ways to invest in key transportation networks that connect and facilitate jobs and commerce. This, even as the 2014 session pushes forward at Super Speeder velocity. Georgia deserves better.
If nothing else, the Gold Dome should pause from its election-year rush long enough to carefully consider and act on House Bill 195. It’s the closest thing to a transportation Plan B right now. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, could allow smaller pairings of cities and counties to band together around a sales tax proposal than was allowed under the T-SPLOST plan voters torpedoed in 2012. In fragmented metro Atlanta, this smaller-is-better idea may be our best present chance of paying for long-overdue improvements, even if some economies of scale or vision are lost.
In fairness to Deal and lawmakers, the governor’s $19.864 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1 represents a 2.7 percent increase from the previous year. And Deal has outlined spending increases in key areas, especially education. These are good moves.
Additional monies will help school districts begin to repair sharp cuts that reduced learning days, programs and educators’ paychecks. The budget proposes restoring the important pre-k program to a full 180 days. Improvements to the HOPE scholarship and grant programs are also included. These are sound investments in Georgia’s future.
As we wrote last week, Georgia needs to face up to the true cost of educating our children to the level that job creators say is needed in the 21st century. Once that’s known, we should then figure out a way to pay for that, in a responsible way that demands significant, yet attainable, improvements in our educational results.
The need to control spending while finding ways to pay for needed investments holds constant across the state budget. To do otherwise in an election year risks strangling the very economic growth that lawmakers say they’re working so hard to attract.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.