I have a lot of respect for third-term State Sen. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone. Chance's father, Louie, and I grew up in College Park and I know for a fact the young man comes from good stock. Louie Chance is a great American.
Ronnie Chance is also politically skilled enough to tell me pointedly that you and I need to understand how grim Georgia's financial situation is these days. Maybe he is tired of my digs at his colleagues fretting over pistol-packing preachers and unauthorized tracking devices on our body parts and wants us to know some serious stuff is taking place under the Gold Dome.
"Georgia's economy is experiencing challenges we haven't seen since the Depression," he says. "February 2009 had been the worst month on record for revenue collections. Unfortunately, this February's numbers came in 9 percent lower than last year. State revenues have dropped 25 percent in the last two years and unemployment is over 10 percent."
When the Legislature recessed at the end of February to work on balancing the budget, the senator said the state was operating on 23 percent less dollars than last year while trying to provide the same level of service to an ever-growing population. Since 2005, Georgia has added more than a half million people to the population.
To say our state leaders have some tough choices ahead is a "colossal understatement," Chance emphasizes. He cites the tender subject of public education, knowing I have a dog in this fight. My son and son-in-law are both public school science teachers, and I don't take kindly to anybody from the governor to the local school board making their life any harder than it already is.
Gamely, Chance says, "As the son and brother of school teachers and as the product of public schools including having two young daughters in public schools, I am a strong advocate of our state's education system." He says education spending increased 34 percent between 2004 and 2010. But now come the dreaded subtractions.
According to the senator, teacher salaries now make up 34 percent of the budget. Add in higher education and education as a whole is more than 60 percent of the state budget. Obviously, in this bleak financial environment that is a big number, and I think Chance is saying, "Be prepared. This is going to hurt."
Yet, at the same time that our state is sucking financial wind, our lame-duck governor wants $9 million to finish a horse show complex in his home county where more than $17 million has already been spent. The facility will join the "Go Fish, Georgia" Center in Houston County and the Little League Baseball Inc.'s regional headquarters in guess where?
The request is one of several included in Perdue's proposed $67 million bond package and it is borrowed money. Annual payments on the proposed bond package could be as much as $100 million.
There will be the argument that the projects Perdue proposes will generate more revenue over time than will be paid out. That doesn't matter. I don't care if the governor is proposing to borrow $67 million or 67 cents. It is the perception that irritates me. Draconian cuts are being made to essential services in our state, including public education, and he wants to finish a horse park back home? If he is so interested in economic development, why doesn't he build something grand in, say, Dalton, where unemployment exceeds the state and the national average?
We just got hosed by the Democrats in Washington who rammed through a health care reform bill despite polls showing most Americans were opposed. Now, Republicans in the General Assembly will likely grant the governor a good portion of his pork program in these hard times and we will get hosed again. At least Democrats and Republicans agree on something: Hosing taxpayers is becoming the national pastime.
If Ronnie Chance says Georgia's financial situation is dire, I believe him. But I would feel a lot better if the Legislature said "no" to Sonny Perdue's horse-patoot going-away present.
Then we can all truly believe.
E-mail columnist Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org.