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Spending cap falls short in Senate

ATLANTA - A bid by Senate Republicans to set a cap on state spending failed Wednesday when it fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

Senators voted 34-21 virtually along party lines in favor of a resolution asking Georgia voters whether annual increases in the state budget should be limited to population growth plus inflation. But because of the two-thirds requirement, the measure needed 38 votes to pass.

The legislation was modeled after a constitutional spending limit passed by voters in Colorado during the 1990s.

But a Senate study committee that worked on the issue last year came up with some improvements on the Colorado law designed to answer critics of spending limits, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the resolution's chief sponsor, told his Senate colleagues.

Rogers, a member of the study committee and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the measure would exclude lottery revenue, gasoline taxes and federal aid to Georgia.

He said it also would include an emergency provision allowing the legislature to override the spending cap with a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

Absent an emergency, Rogers said, any revenue the state raises above the cap would have to be used to build up the government's reserves, reduce the debt or be sent back to the taxpayers in the form of a refund.

"It does not shrink the budget,'' he said. "We're only talking about (spending) that goes beyond where we would expect our government to reasonably grow.''

But Rogers said the most important reason for lawmakers to approve the resolution would be to give Georgians a chance to vote on what happens with their tax dollars.

"It is their money we're talking about,'' he said. "It's not ours.''

But Democrats pointed to the Colorado law as a poor example for Georgia to follow.

In 2005, the same Coloradans who had approved spending limits a decade earlier voted to suspend the cap for five years because of the effects it was having on the funds available for public schools, health care and highway projects.

"I would be wary of efforts to divorce this from Colorado's experience,'' said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.

Orrock and other Democrats questioned the need for an artificial cap on spending in Georgia in light of what they called the legislature's solid track record in fiscal management, including a series of tax cuts enacted during the boom years of the 1990s, an era when Democrats were in power.

Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, said a spending cap would tie lawmakers' hands to respond to the state's needs. He suggested that setting budget policies in a representative government should be left up to elected officials.

"There would be no need for a deliberative body in the General Assembly if we're going to turn every single question over to the voters,'' he said.

After Wednesday's vote, Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, who chaired the study committee, moved for the vote to be reconsidered because of the narrow margin of defeat.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer, said the resolution will be voted on again on Tuesday, the next time the Senate meets.