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Senators resume debate on taxing and spending limit

ATLANTA - A legal limit on taxing and spending would force Georgia policymakers to decide which programs are central to state government and which are unnecessary, a Republican state senator said Thursday.

But a former state budget aide now running an Atlanta-based think tank said an artificial cap not linked to the needs of Georgians would rob decision makers of the flexibility required to adjust to the circumstances of any given time.

That exchange came as a Senate study committee began looking for ways to limit state taxing and spending to avoid throwing money at programs that either are no longer useful or are less valuable than other programs that aren't getting enough funds.

"When government grows, it grows with all kinds of little programs,'' said Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, the panel's chairman. "Then, when we have a downturn in our revenues, everybody screams about how important those programs are. ... We're robbing revenue from fundamental, basic items government should be doing.''

A House study committee headed by Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, met several times last year to consider whether Georgia should adopt a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights modeled after a law in Colorado. Under TABOR, tax increases are limited to the rate of inflation plus population growth.

However, the momentum driving the issue in Georgia was blunted last fall when Colorado voters narrowly approved a referendum temporarily suspending the TABOR law because of its effects on the state's ability to deliver services.

On Thursday, Kevin Fillion, director of the Senate's Budget and Evaluation Office, presented statistics showing that Georgia budgets during the past 20 years have outstripped both inflation and the state's rapid population growth.

Even adjusting for inflation, the average tax burden on Georgians has increased in the last 20 years from $1,200 per person to $1,700 per person, Fillion said.

"That, to me, is the key figure,'' said Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, another member of the study committee.

But Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the types of services governments buy, such as health care and education, tend to rise in price more rapidly than the typical "market basket of goods'' used by economists to measure inflation.

He said the vast majority of growth in state government spending in recent years has come either from unavoidable expenses, like increasing enrollment in public schools and Medicaid, or from policy decisions by Georgia governors and legislatures. As an example of the latter, he cited the "two-strikes-and-you're-out'' crime bill pushed through the General Assembly by then-Gov. Zell Miller.