Swapping penny from schools, other state needs is not small change

Alan blogAs published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Feb. 11, 2015.

Some powerful Georgia lawmakers are floating a plan to move $180 million out of the state account used for schools, public safety and other general needs to redirect the money solely for roads and bridges.

The $180 million may not sound like a lot in the context of the proposed $21.8 billion, 2016 state budget. But consider all the identified needs not included in the spending plan and you’ll get an idea of just how lean a machine Georgia runs these days. A small sample:

Georgia needs to spend $60 million to return Medicaid payment rates to the level in place until Dec. 31, 2014, or risk jeopardizing access to health care for the poor. The state needs to come up with $15 million to launch its unfunded Invest Georgia venture capital initiative, according to supporters who tout its economic potential. Heck, if Georgia could just come up with $690,000 more in the 2016 budget the state could add the 11 additional Adult Protective Services workers it needs now to look after some of the state’s most vulnerable people rather than postpone those hires a year.

A good case can be made for these and many other worthy requests state lawmakers will consider for the 2016 budget in coming weeks. You can find ardent supporters for all of them.

And you can be sure those ardent supporters are just as tired of traveling Georgia’s long-neglected road network as the champions of plan to shift existing taxes around to create the illusion of $850 million in new annual transportation spending.

This $850 million is found largely through a gradual diversion of about $520 million in sales taxes from cities and counties, which are often already struggling to cover costs for education and other services once paid for by the state.

Lawmakers who back the plan to shift tax revenues say they are open to suggestions to improve it. I’m glad that’s the case.

One argument for the plan holds that the money shift aligns the use of the revenue with its supposed purpose. Taxes on gas are intended to facilitate transportation, they say.

I won’t argue with that reasoning, but it is critical that any package that redirects existing revenue from the state general fund or local governments to transportation should also replace that money.

We’ll need bold leaders to sell such a plan to the public and we can start by admitting two truths: Our hands aren’t tied and our state budget isn’t full of pork.

Lawmakers can choose from several palatable options to raise new revenue. They could replace the lost state revenue by boosting cigarette taxes. They could extend Georgia’s sales taxes to some household services now exempt as a viable option to compensate local governments.

I wish Georgia could pull a proverbial rabbit out of a hat and create enough new revenue to pay for the state’s needs, from health care to seeding economic development to taking care of our growing older population. Since magic isn’t real, Georgia will need a more pragmatic approach that doesn’t make already scarce resources vanish.

 

 

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