AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia lawmakers balance the budget but, like Congress, pile on big debt

Lawmakers in most states are proud to remind constituents that, unlike Congress, they approve balanced budgets every year.

They sometimes forget to mention that state constitutions almost always prohibit the kind of deficit spending common in Washington.

But one of the fastest-growing items in Georgia's budget over the past decade and a half has been debt service - paying off construction debt governors and state lawmakers have piled up, according to officials at the Center for State and Local Finance at Georgia State University.

During a recent budget briefing, the center's director, Carolyn Bordeaux, noted that overall state spending has increased about 37 percent since 2002, the year before Republicans took of the governor's mansion and the state Senate. Two years later they also captured the House.

Percentage-wise, the biggest increase since 2002 has come in spending on the state's judicial system, but that is a tiny part of the state budget.

Next on the list is paying off bonds on things like the construction of school buildings, libraries, ports facilities and special projects like the Go Fish Center in Houston County. Since 2002, the presentation showed, the cost of paying off such bonds has gone from $739 million a year to $1.2 billion, an almost 65 percent increase.

That figure shot up during the 2000s as governors and lawmakers sought to borrow money for projects in part to create construction jobs during economic downturns. A recent report suggested every Georgia taxpayer's share of the debt in 2014 was $4,500.

Bond projects have become a big part of the fiscal horse-trading at the Capitol. When Democrats were in charge, the political currency for governors and lawmakers was small spending items, like local high school band uniforms, downtown beautification projects or lighting for ballfields and parks, that added up to millions of dollars each year. Such local, small-money "pork" has largely disappeared from the state budget, but governors and lawmakers have been more aggressive in using much more expensive, bond projects as a replacement.

Next in line on the list of spending increases, at about 60 percent, is health and human services, much of that to pay for increasing enrollment and costs associated with Medicaid.

Despite complaints about cuts to education, the state is spending 41 percent more on public education than it did in 2002, the GSU figures show. But educators are quick to point out that spending would have increased much more - based on enrollment growth - had lawmakers not approved austerity cuts many years to help balance the budget. Per capita, adjusted for inflation, GSU officials said K12 education fell 11 percent during that period.

The biggest loser since 2002? The Department of Natural Resources, Georgia's parks, environmental protection and wildlife agency. The GSU budget figures show DNR funding, which has slowly been on the uptick the past few years, is still down 30 percent since 2002. Per capita, adjusted for inflation, Georgia is spending less than half of what it did in 2002 on parks, wildlife and environmental protection programs.

That is no surprise to environmentalists, wildlife enthusiasts and county officials. They have complained for years about lawmakers diverting money from various fees and licenses meant for environmental and wildlife programs to spend on pretty much everything else. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported, almost $200 million has been diverted from tire and landfill fees alone over the past two decades, most of it since 2002.




Reader Comments ...

About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.