By the end of his second term, Gov. Sonny Perdue understood that transportation in Georgia was badly underfunded and had been underfunded for years, harming the quality of life of Georgia citizens and damaging its economy.
Legislative leaders, including chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees, shared that conviction. Yet when it came time to correct the problem, they balked. The best they could manage — and it took years of halting work to accomplish even that much — was to pass a convoluted, complex approach that tried to dump the state’s responsibility for funding transportation onto local voters and local officials.
In the end, the TSPLOST work-around didn’t work and the funding shortage continues. But Perdue’s successor, Nathan Deal, and his fellow state leaders still do not dare to do what they know is necessary. They have no “Plan B.” They do not lead, they follow, and they do so timidly.
And it’s not just transportation. Consider Medicaid and the state’s so-called “bed tax” charged to hospital patients. Again, Georgia leaders from Deal on down understand the necessity of renewing the tax, which expires this year. Without the revenue raised through the tax, Georgia would lose $400 million in federal Medicaid funding, forcing drastic cutbacks in payments to Medicaid service providers and probably forcing the closure of rural hospitals.
Yet they can’t bring themselves to do what they know is necessary. Not directly, anyway. Instead, they have engineered another work-around, creating legislation that shunts responsibility for the bed tax — renamed a fee — onto state bureaucrats, who have been given the “authority” to levy the fee themselves. That way, no politician has his or her fingerprints on a tax renewal.
But how long can this charade be sustained?
The same duty-dodging deception may be employed to produce the public contribution toward financing a new, retractable-roof stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. Personally, I don’t think that in times such as these, scarce tax resources ought to be used to subsidize a highly profitable business. But powerful leaders in this state have decided otherwise. The governor wants it. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed wants it. The state’s business community wants it.
But again, state leaders are plotting ways to avoid a legislative vote, this time by shifting the responsibility onto those “tax-happy liberals” at the city of Atlanta.
Earlier this week, in joint House and Senate budget hearings, Deal bragged that “We have reduced per capita spending of state dollars for our citizens. Using 2012 dollars, we are spending money at a rate of 17 percent less than we did a decade ago. And we now have 9,000 fewer state employees than we did five years ago.”
Great. But we also have a badly inadequate transportation system, a higher ed system that is taking yet another major cut to its budget, public school systems that can’t stay open the minimum 180 days a year and a bureaucracy no longer able to perform basic government functions in a timely manner. We are allowing the work of a generation to come unraveled.
But at least we still have a Legislature that can say it didn’t vote for a tax increase, if only in the same, technical sense in which Bill Clinton could say that he “never had sex with that woman.”
– Jay Bookman