Annual budget flap has new twist

Arguing over which "pork" projects to load into the state's annual midyear budget adjustment is a perennial game played by House and Senate leaders, no matter which party controls the General Assembly.

But this year is different.

Instead of fighting over which museum, state park or community health clinic is worth adding to the governor's spending requests, the battle now is over whether any projects should be there.

The Senate Appropriations Committee last week stripped from the midyear budget passed by the House all but what senators argued is essential spending.

The panel signed off on increases for PeachCare, indigent defense, tornado relief and the usual midterm adjustment for growth in school enrollment.

Senators yanked a long list of projects sought either by Gov. Sonny Perdue or the House, including the governor's Go Fish Georgia initiative and $1 million organizers of the Tour de Georgia say they need to keep the annual event alive.

The move, which had been anticipated since Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle tipped the Senate's hand the previous week, sets up a stickier-than-usual showdown with the House.

This is the fifth year that Republicans have been in control of the Senate and the third year the House has been in the GOP's hands.

So what precipitated a fight this year?

According to Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, the main difference is the new lieutenant governor.

This is the first legislative session that Cagle, a former senator from the Gainesville area, has presided over the Senate.

"This is what he campaigned on, and the Senate agrees with him," Johnson said. "We're backing him up."

Cagle explained his philosophy on the midyear budget succinctly to reporters Friday.

"When all projects are weighed in context of the budget for the full year, you are forced to prioritize spending," he said. "The (midyear) budget is extra money. That's where you get in the trap of spending.

"That money needs to be used to pay down debt, give it back to taxpayers or build up the reserves."

For their part, House Republican leaders bristle at what they perceive to be the "holier-than-thou" attitude displayed by their Senate counterparts.

They won't take a back seat when it comes to being guardians of the taxpayers' money.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen pointed to a process set up by Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, requiring all members to clear the spending projects they want for their districts with a committee created to sift through those requests.

Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said the committee looks for projects that have economic development potential, are of regional or statewide value and that are supported by local governments willing to put up some of the money.

House leaders also are unhappy that senators decided to take their "no-new-spending" stand so late in the session.

"Not one time was there ever any indication from anybody in the Senate that they had this new religion," Keen said. "These are the kinds of things you talk about in advance."

Finally, leaders in the House question whether the Senate is serious about reining in spending.

Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the Senate essentially is saying that projects shouldn't be funded in March as part of the midyear budget, but it's OK to add them to next year's budget, which takes effect in July.

"They've not pointed out any bad spending items," he said. "It's just, 'We want to shift where you spend it.' That's a shell game."

It was Cagle's turn to bristle at those comments.

He pointed to the Senate's plans for the approximately $200 million it has cut from the midyear budget: About $180 million would be used to pay down the state's debt, and $20 million would be put into the "rainy-day" fund.

"I'm talking about spending less money," Cagle said. "Our budget clearly articulates that."

Now, the two sides are playing a game of chicken to see who will blink first on the budget.

Since the annual "Crossover Day" in the Legislature came and went last Tuesday, each chamber is in control of the other's bills.

Neither has shown any enthusiasm for taking up major legislation the other side wants.

Only a few minor House bills cleared the Senate last week after Crossover Day, and vice versa.

That means Cagle's two priorities, bills aimed at increasing the number of charter schools and career academies in Georgia, face an uncertain future in the House, where they've been sitting since passing the Senate early in the session.

There are ways to use the legislative process to get around that, and Cagle said he won't be shy about using them if he has to.

"There's going to be charter schools and career academies tacked onto every education bill that comes over from the House until they pass my two bills," Cagle said.

Of course, two can play at that game, which should make for an interesting end to this year's session.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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