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Education remains leaders' top priority

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Every year the General Assembly meets, the state budget is always one of the hardest fought battles among legislators -- even when times were good.

But now, with the economy faltering and revenues from everything from motor fuel tax to sales and property tax coming in at a fraction of what they did in the past, the dollars will be even more valuable.

Most legislators agree on a few priorities, with education funding remaining at the top. But cutting spending means hitting someone's pet project or impacting a program that had a special meaning.

A year ago, the state's budget dwindled from $21.4 billion to $18.6 billion. Last July, there were $900 million more in cuts, and the governor has been withholding money from the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, which is halfway complete, because revenues have been down by $200 million a month each of the first five months of the fiscal year.

"Those numbers are certainly striking," Gov. Perdue's spokesman Bert Brantley said. "It's certainly not heading in the right direction."

The budget crisis has led state agencies to furlough staff, some as many as 12 days.

Even in education, where the governor and legislators wanted to keep money the most, teachers took three furlough days during the first half of the school year.

This fiscal year, education and Medicaid and PeachCare were held to 3 percent withholdings, while most other agencies faced 5 percent. Because the Legislature officially doles out the funding, Perdue asked for plans for 4, 6 and 8 percent cuts to prepare lawmakers to determine a reconciliation budget for the rest of the fiscal year and to plan the 2011 budget, both of which must be passed this year.

Other than the furlough days that closed driver's license offices and other state buildings, reduced hours and closings at state parks, increased fees at colleges and some longer waits for service, such as the months it took for staffers at the Department of Revenue to process state income tax returns, Brantley said Georgians have seen little of the impact of the rough economy.

But much of that has been because of the use of more than $1 billion in rainy day funds and the way stimulus dollars have shored up education, health care and public safety accounts by nearly $3 billion over the last three years.

The stimulus package also helped keep transportation projects moving, even though the state's transportation department has been in a financial crisis, he said.

The real work and the painful decisions will come under the Gold Dome, as officials decide if there are some services and projects that could be cut to make room for bigger priorities.

"It is easy to say cut the pork, but we did that last year and the year before," said Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who will be a leader in the budget discussions as chairman of the Rules Committee. "This year it will be cutting important programs. I would cut funding for the arts, historic preservation and land conservation. These are good programs but not essential."

Local legislators mentioned programs from the governor's favorite "Go Fish Georgia" to Planned Parenthood as programs that could get the ax. For the most part, the Democrats favored taking away tax breaks to businesses that don't appear to be making a difference, and some Republicans said comprehensive budget reform could provide the answer.

When asked what they would fight to keep in the budget, most of the answers revolved around education, with mental health, public health and public safety also getting attention.