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House GOP mulls budget reforms

Reform has been a buzzword among the Republicans in control of the General Assembly.

Since capturing majorities in the House and Senate earlier this decade, GOP lawmakers have enacted immigration reform, supported Gov. Sonny Perdue's reform of Medicaid and pushed for a variety of tax reforms.

Now, House Republican leaders are talking about reforming the budget process as a way to lessen the role politics plays in how the state spends the taxpayers' money.

Meeting with reporters recently, Majority Leader Jerry Keen said House GOP budget writers may decide to hold off considering proposed capital projects until the spending plan reaches a conference committee with the Senate, the last step before lawmakers adopt the budget.

Lawmakers could take that step unilaterally. The other change that's under consideration, breaking out state spending on primary and secondary education into a separate bill to be taken up apart from the rest of the budget, would require a constitutional amendment.

The idea of waiting until the conference committee meets to take up capital projects is modeled after an approach the legislature already has begun taking with so-called "special projects," the local grants lawmakers insert into the budget each year that critics deride as "pork" projects.

This year, the conference committee added $6.5 million in local grants to the budget during their final negotiations.

Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said the process worked well because those projects became associated with the full General Assembly rather than with the parochial interests of an individual legislator or legislative chamber.

"Projects that are good for Georgia should be good for Georgia," he said. "They shouldn't be labeled as 'this person's project' or 'this body's project.'"

Rep. John Heard, R-Lawrenceville, chairman of the House budget subcommittee on special projects, said he likes the idea of expanding the concept, as long as capital projects receive the same vetting that his panel gave to the local grants individual House members requested.

"We go through a very elaborate evaluation process with special projects ... so we're putting the dollars we have in the places that are most needed," he said.

"Essentially, a capital project is the same as a special project. It's just of higher value."

But it's the higher value that should make lawmakers think twice before waiting until the budget reaches the conferees to decide which capital projects to support, said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus.

Hooks, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee for more than a decade when Democrats were in power, said capital projects typically involve millions of dollars in bonds.

"On a conference committee, you have six members making decisions," he said. "When you're going to borrow that amount of money, the full legislature needs to be aware of what's going on."

Keen said the purpose of separating school spending into its own bill would be to have the legislature adopt the K-12 budget first, before it could get caught up in the political dealmaking that accompanies the latter stages of the budget process.

"That would take that money off the table," he said. "It would not be at risk."

Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said his organization would support anything likely to make school spending a priority.

"If the idea is to take care of education first and make sure that education is funded at least according to the state's basic formula ... I think it's a good idea," he said.

But Hooks said there's a potential pitfall in adding a third budget bill to the midyear and full-year budgets the General Assembly already takes up each session.

"There's no guarantee that you're going to pass it early," he said. "(Then), you'll be dealing with three budgets. They're liable to get hung up with one another."

Nevada has found a way around that hurdle. That state's constitution specifies that Nevada lawmakers must pass a budget for the public schools before they can enact any other appropriations.

But Garrett said that even if Georgia lawmakers decide to take the same route, it wouldn't guarantee taking politics out of school funding.

In fact, Garrett subscribes to the same axiom often heard from lawmakers and other observers of Georgia politics.

"At the state Capitol, nothing is ever apolitical," he said.

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