Recently the State Senate began its exploration of Georgia’s budget woes by kicking off a series of joint appropriations subcommittee meetings.
When we come to session this January, the Georgia General Assembly will have to make some tough choices. We need to recommit ourselves to ask this question about every program: “Is it a constitutional or statutory requirement of state government?” If the answer is “no,” then we need to question the relevance of the program and its continuation.
The exploratory meetings began with economic development and transportation; two key areas that help Georgians live better lives. Some of the programs discussed included community and business development programs, energy and water programs, environmental loans and grants, the state’s driver’s license system, transit and rail operations and the building of new transportation facilities.
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Economic Development, I feel it is vitally important to focus on essential services to our citizens and their families by clarifying programs and determining their role in servicing local communities. Effective and efficient government is that which improves the lives of citizens, properly coordinates at the state and local levels, while being mindful of taxpayer dollars and controlling spending. Overlapping and redundant responsibilities, roles and funds should be examined with a fine-tooth comb to ensure responsible spending and stimulating local economies. We also need to keep in mind that state government is responsible to the people of the state, not the other way around.
Let’s take transportation as an example. According to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, since 2000, Georgia has ranked as the third fastest growing state in population and home to four of the fastest growing counties in the country. Traffic congestion is getting worse on Georgia’s roadways because vehicle travel is increasing at a rate significantly greater than new roadway capacity is being added. From 1990 - 2005, vehicle travel increased by 63 percent, while lane miles only increased by 6 percent.
One of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) programs that have historically been effective and beneficial to local communities is the Local Assistance Road Program (LARP). On an annual basis, LARP has been in access of $100 million per year. That number has dropped to around $60 million for FY 2009. Unfortunately, when asked to propose reductions in the current year budget, the state GDOT Board returned with a proposal to cut the LARP program in half. Rather than suggesting cuts in redundant or excessive personnel or even one day per month furlough for state employees like other agencies, the GDOT Board has suggested cuts in one of the most essential programs for smaller communities. This could have direct negative impacts in smaller areas of the state and the 51st District, such as Dahlonega, Blairsville and Ellijay. Often times, the only DOT project funded by LARP for these cities is a one-half to one mile of overlay paving for their city streets.
In keeping with our original charge of the constitutional or statutory requirement of state government, one must ask if the DOT is a department of jobs or a department of transportation.
The challenge we will face as a legislature is to not sacrifice improvements to our roads, highways and intersections while finding common ground on budget efficiencies. Finding out the economical benefits to our transportation programs is the key. For example, the Georgia Port Authority is requesting a $223 million state investment to match a federal share of $311 million for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. Will this double the amount of container freights or bring the state more economical grown via cargos? Another example is the use of technology. Agencies should consider making more information available on Web sites, in order to reduce printing fees associated with various manuals and information.
As leaders in the state, my colleagues and I should also revisit our own practices and mandates by examining statutes put into law that may have added to bureaucracy and expenditures. Certainly more laws are often not the solution, and can even be, as Ronald Reagan said, “the problem,” thereby being counter productive to the cause of smaller, more efficient government. In some cases, we may need to consider privatization of some programs versus government oversight or outright elimination. This is responsible government.
Amidst the national financial mess, Georgia’s net revenue collections for the month of September 2008 (FY09) totaled just over $1.6 million compared to $1.5 million for September 2007 (FY08), an increase of 4.5 percent. While this is positive news, we need to be cautious with these numbers. The three-month rolling average is still down and this is simply a flattening in the rate of decline, rather than a reversing of the trend. This does not justify the creation of new programs or a perpetuation of inefficient ones.
We need to consider all opportunities for efficiencies, improvements and economic growth while not sacrificing essential services to our citizens and their families.
Sen. Chip Pearson can be reached at his office in Atlanta at (404) 656-9221 or by e-mail at email@example.com.