AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

What's the cost of getting the state out of long-term debt? $4,500 from each taxpayer

Many folks have heard of the federal debt clock (over $18 trillion and counting) - the running, ever-growing accounting of how much the federal government owes.

A Chicago-based group called Truth in Accounting has long turned a similar spotlight on state government debt, and its latest report - released Wednesday - says each Georgia income taxpayer's share of the current state government debt was $4,500 at the end of fiscal 2014. In other words, each Georgian who filed an income tax return last year would have to chip in $4,500 for the state to be debt free.

That figure includes debt for the annual $800 million-$1 billion the state borrows for construction projects each year and liabilities for state retirement systems and retiree health costs.

Georgia ranks 27th in terms of the "taxpayer" state debt burden, according to the group. But $4,500 doesn't sound so bad when compared with New Jersey ($52,300) and Connecticut ($48,600), or even South Carolina ($9,700) and Alabama ($13,400).

On the other hand, the "taxpayer burden" is worse here than in neighboring Florida ($1,100). And the group said 11 states have a "taxpayer surplus," meaning they have enough assets to pay off debts.

Georgia typically does OK  in such rankings in part because its biggest retirement system, the massive Teacher Retirement System, is in much better financial shape than retirement  systems in places like Illinois,  another big debt ($45,000 per taxpayer) state.  Georgia also sets limits on its debt service, or the money that can be spent paying off state borrowing, so lawmakers can't go too crazy building high-speed rail from Blue Ridge to Hahira or Go Fish Centers in every other county.

And the last two governors have recognized the state's long-term, multi-billion-dollar  liability to pay for health coverage for state retirees. Gov. Sonny Perdue set aside $100 million in the late 2000s to begin building a fund for that liability, but then the Great Recession hit and the money was needed elsewhere. Gov. Nathan Deal followed Perdue's lead once state revenues starting picking back up. As of May, the state had set aside about $132 million for those long-term obligations.

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About the Author

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