Sleepless in Atlanta: Cash, schools and a Legislature on edge

The ability to sit on one’s duff for hour upon hour, without losing consciousness, is an unappreciated talent in politics.

For three full days last week, a bipartisan collection of state lawmakers gathered at the Capitol to slog through the dismal details of Sonny Perdue’s 18-month spending plan for state government.

The large room was packed. The joint sessions of the House and Senate Budget committees were a rare opportunity for rank-and-file lawmakers to question department heads about the reach of the governor’s ax.

Those who endured, those who stayed awake, were offered hints of the worrisome arguments likely to wrack the Legislature over the next several weeks. Cash, of course, is the common thread.

On Day One, for instance, state Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham was questioned about the efficiency of the state’s system of sales tax collection. A dull topic, yes. But Perdue has declared state government to be in the midst of its greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and pennies add up.

For years, cities and counties have complained about being shortchanged — the state collects sales taxes for them, too. And a pilot program focused largely on Hall County, which compared local business licenses with state sales tax accounts, indicates that a significant number of shops and stores may be simply pocketing the extra change collected from customers.

House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin, a candidate for governor, pressed for an estimate of how much cash was being missed.

“Do I think more than 5 percent of sales tax statewide is going unreported, uncollected?” Graham responded. “Maybe. I don’t think it’s more than 10 [percent]. Because there are not many larger, substantive businesses that aren’t already on our radar screen.”

Republican jaws dropped just as low as Democratic mandibles.

Afterward, Porter pointed out that 5 percent of the state’s annual sales tax collections would amount to $250 million. Which would more than eliminate the three additional furlough days teachers across Georgia could be required to take between now and June.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) wants to know more. “It is a matter of interest to me. I don’t know about anybody else,” he said.

Day Two was dominated by state School Superintendent Kathy Cox, a Republican in a tight spot. Cox goes home to hard times — she and her builder husband have filed for personal bankruptcy. And she comes to work in hard times. Cox may be facing the largest lump-sum budget cuts in the history of Georgia education.

Unlike the governor, Cox is not barred from seeking a third term and is running for re-election. But Perdue retains great control over much of her budget.

Cox did not cross the governor, who says he has treated education as gently as possible. But she came close.

The woman in charge of the state’s school system reminded lawmakers that she, and they, will have to answer a specific question from Georgia teachers: “Why — this year — do we have to take furloughs?”

The “bottom line” answer, she said, was that the furloughs are necessary because the state has cut by $710 million the amount it sends to local school systems. And the situation is about to get worse.

“The ’11 budget takes away our ability as a state to do anything to help our schools,” Cox said, adding a nervous smile. “We have a lot of them teetering on the edge. We’ve had several of our systems actually go into the red this year.”

State Rep. Alan Powell (D-Hartwell) told Cox that he’d heard that 35 school systems are near the breaking point — that they’re having to decide whether to make payroll or keep up payments on school buildings.

“Right,” Cox confirmed. “We work on a daily basis with those school systems.”

For lawmakers, it was not a session suited for a good nap. In fact, a plague of insomnia may be breaking out at the Capitol.

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38 comments Add your comment

Courtney

January 23rd, 2010
3:45 pm

It is a shame that we do not value education in this state.

Base

January 23rd, 2010
4:07 pm

Sonny and the legislature have ruined the state economy and the budget,thanks!

Keith

January 23rd, 2010
4:09 pm

Other agencies and departments are having their budgets reduced by 3 or 4 times as much percentage wise as education. Educations spending takes 56 cents of every dollar of state revenue, the largest bite. If education is off limits to cuts then Georgia will be bankrupt. In a perfect world we would increase teacher salaries (they’re still underpaid), reduce class sizes, and do many other pro-education things, but the state is broke.

Cutty

January 23rd, 2010
4:52 pm

And these lames want to cut more taxes.

Wiregrass Willie

January 23rd, 2010
5:28 pm

A modest proposal for a first step. Undo the tax breaks handed out over the last decade.As for transportation, scrap the regional sales tax approach which would work in major retail centers but not in the rest of the state, and finance improvements with a motor fuel tax increase.

Hall county's take on it

January 23rd, 2010
5:29 pm

GAINESVILLE – The Hall County Commission Chairman has no kind words for the state Revenue Department after a local government delegation meeting in Atlanta this past week.

“They’re true bureaucrats,” Oliver said Friday. “The less they will tell you, the less you will know; they intend to maintain their superiority.”

Oliver was describing the attitude he said he found when county commissioners, city and county school board members, and Gainesville City Council members and other city officials went to tell Revenue Department officials the county wants to collect its own sales tax.

“There must have been 20 bureaucrats there plus lobbyists, which is a credit to Hall County, so with our team we’re going to continue to pursue this,” Oliver said. “They do not like the idea we’re asking questions.”

Hall County Commissioners originally asked local officials to meet Wednesday morning in Gainesville to discuss a proposed resolution calling for enabling legislation to permit county sales tax collection but that turned into a meeting in Atlanta with an invitation from Gainesville State Representative Carl Rogers.

“I’m not sure we’re going to pursue this legislation this year,” Oliver said. “What we have done is take this proposed legislation to the Revenue Department and it’s allowed us to get in the door. They do not want any publicity, they want very little or no legislation introduced.”

According to Oliver the legislation might be introduced next year and when it is, it may have statewide impact; Hall County is not likely to be the only county seeking to collect sales tax instead of sending it to Atlanta.

“Those funds are not coming back to Hall County or other counties, the state keeps the revenue,” Oliver said. “It’s a source of additional revenue and they do not want these counties challenging them. We’re saying we’re entitled to the money because it’s our money. It’s a back door way of increasing state taxes, because the funds don’t come back to Hall County, and definitely not on a timely basis; they send the money back when they want to with no explanation of the revenues or where it came from.”

Oliver said State Revenue wouldn’t even release the number of people who pay sales tax.

“They have no intention of us understanding any of the details, but they had a lot of people there and it concerned them that we’re making a challenge,” Oliver said. “If you like bureaucracy the State Revenue Department is eaten up with it.”

Veteran teacher, 2

January 23rd, 2010
6:01 pm

If the Perdue machine had not already cut millions to the local school boards in the past five years under the guise of “austerity cuts.” they could have probably ridden out the downturn. Instead they shifted that amount from education to other stuff like fish camps and museums for Houston County and almost countless boards and agencies. Wake up people, the money had to go somewhere. Why are we not holding the state government accountable for where the money cut from education went over the past five years? Remember in November when your property taxes go through the roof next year. Most of this smoke and mirrors game they have been playing is designed to shift the burden of funding education to the local systems. How is that working for you?? Did your state income and sales taxes go down at the same time???

Elf on the Shelf

January 23rd, 2010
6:26 pm

Kurt Taylor

January 23rd, 2010
6:57 pm

I am a conservative republican, but I am sick of those that are elected. You can’t lie to us and keep your job. I will voting democrat no matter who runs. You all have lied and misled the state.

tc

January 23rd, 2010
8:23 pm

greedy wall st aided and abetted by dems and repubs, but mostly repubs, stupidly fought wars aiding the military/industrial complex, undisciplined and highly inefficient spending by congress (just ask anyone who works in dc and you’d be amazed at the lack of budget rigor), & something for nothing public have really done it this time for the overall economy…..i almost feel sorry for perdue.

But what corporations would really want to come to GA with congested transportation, poor student performance, good ole boys running much of this state……mell of hess

Donna Howell

January 23rd, 2010
8:42 pm

Kurt, I’m with you. I’m in my 50s, and have voted Republican since I turned 18 and was able to vote, but these clowns in our state are fast turning me into a Democrat.

They are not collecting the taxes and refuse to try, but tell us the state has no money. They furlough state employees – who also pay state income, sales, and property taxes, by the way – and say they must because the state has no money.

They cut education – which is mandated by the state constitution – but still have plenty of money for the museums in Houston County, Sonny’s GO FISH! program, and the new horse park, none of which are mentioned in or mandated by the state constitution at all.

They’re all about enriching themselves and their buddies at the taxpayer expense, and we’re fools if we let them continue.

The Cynical White Boy

January 23rd, 2010
11:15 pm

At least, thank God, our STATE government has to live within it’s means and unlike the FEDERAL government which can simply steal from future generations and just borrow and print money and invite people to the White House for beers and sing Kum Ba Yah in front of an idol-worshipping national press core.

I’m no fan of Sonny’s “GO FISH” attitude, but at least our STATE government has to balance it’s checkbook like I do, as opposed to the OBAMA/PEOLOSI/REID attitude of spend, borrow and tax.

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Bitter EX democrackkk

January 24th, 2010
5:46 am

its NOT a democrackkk republican thing..its a power struggle and IF you idiots put democrackkks in there, these problems will QUADRUPLE like ShamBama!

The Late Maynord Jackson

January 24th, 2010
7:54 am

There is a simple answer to collecting all the sales taxes. PRIVITIZATION. The Jackson Machine can handle it, look at the job we have done at the airport and city of Atlanta.

Vote Barnes EARLY & OFTEN

Lewis

January 24th, 2010
8:44 am

We are not just furloughing teachers. More importantly, we are furloughing our children and their futures.

miller

January 24th, 2010
9:36 am

Not sympathetic in the least here, we have grown state government faster than inflation for years and years when times were good. Now, we have a historic opportunity to put our collective heads together and make efficiency improvements. Let me start with one idea for one which is such low-hanging fruit that I can’t believe it hasn’t been done. We have 159 counties with school systems. Each one has a “central” office that “designs” curriculum for children. How about eliminating at least half of those central offices? Easy stuff. We didn’t even have these “centrl” offices when I was being educated. Furloughing teachers should be the last thing to do. Those folks make it happen.

On another note, why do these school district superintendents make so much money? The PE teacher who makes 290K in DeKalb. Heck, I’m an engineer and would do a better job and accept 150K a year no questions asked. Fire these guys first! Listen to the teachers in this posts – commissions, GO FISH. Just get rid of them all. Kudos to Hall County!

A Life Long Georgian

January 24th, 2010
10:05 am

Folks, most (I say most realizing that some are very good at managing their money) local and state government agencies are corrupt or have corrupt people that are a brick short of a full load overseeing their money and budgets. Witness the City of Atlanta financial person that was fired/let go/resigned on threat of being fired a couple of years ago for not including big ticket items in the budget or a recent case…..the DeKalb County Councilwoman charged with overseeing the County Budget, who had warrants against her for writing bad checks, was being garnished for not making the payments on her “Lexus” and several other mismanagement issues. Voters, we need to rid ourselves of these low performers……I know, it’s gonna be hard…..some of ‘em keep their jobs because of Political Correctness…wink, wink…..nepotism, political favors, etc., the list goes on. When are we gonna wake up and demand our governments be charged with balancing the budget and I don’t mean “cooking the books” to make it look like were doing so. Let’s get tough…..let’s march on the State Capital if we have to…..the People of The Great State Of Georgia should not let the underperformers run our state into the ground.

Jason

January 24th, 2010
11:03 am

The Cynical White Boy, have you never heard of bonds? The state is up to its eyes in debt. Not as bad as the federal government but when it comes to drowning, does it matter if the lake is 50 feet deep or 500 feet deep? Sonny’s massive program of building four lane highways in parts of the state that get only a couple hundred cars a day have put DOT in a huge hole and it’ll take several generations of debt payments just to get back to zero.

Midtowner

January 24th, 2010
11:06 am

The incompetent keep their jobs b/c of merit system rules; you can have a union and have better merit rules, they are not incompatable (if you have spine…)
How come NO ONE has investigated the Go Fish program and its outlay?
For something as inane as that, does ANYONE smell political payback besides me? Who are the beneficiaries connected to, and who in turn are THEY connected to – like Sir Sonny? If what i’ve heard is correct, shouldn’t take very long to connect the dots on this puppy – he**, since *I’ve* heard of it, with NO connections to any state politician in office, how come no one else has????
Purdue has done what Jeb Bush did in Fla – raid the State kitty and well-functioning departments to feather the nests of his buddies.

Bill McMillon

January 24th, 2010
11:26 am

What is wrong with you folks that want to vote Democratic. Half the elected officials that are serving now were at one time Democrats. It’s just like in Washington, these people forget they are serving the folks back home, and not the special interest groups. Forget about Party when you vote. Vote for the person you honestly feel can and will do the best job for all of The State Georgia.

DannyX

January 24th, 2010
11:44 am

Yeah, that must be it! The incompetent fools running Georgia must all still be Democrats! LOL!

No one can be a Democrat one day and a Republican the next. I guess this means one of the “best” Presidents ever was a Democrat, RONALD REAGAN!

The fact of the matter is Republicans ruined the economy on a national level and are now doing it at the state level. Georgia is a mess.

Hey everyone, all the Republicans have to do is wave the magic fairy wand. This magic wand produces tax cuts that fix just about everything! Amazing!

tc

January 24th, 2010
12:53 pm

merit system protection for state employees greatly diminished; good, responsible managers can rid government of much ineptitude if they try……..ones they have trouble with are result of nepotism or perceived/real connections with legislators, executive branch big wigs, or board members etc.

DannyX

January 24th, 2010
1:13 pm

7 years later and Georgia Republicans are still blaming Democrats for the mess Georgia is in.

Meanwhile, Obama is being accused of destroying modern civilization in just one year on the job cleaning up Bush’s mess. Whatever.

Oh and speaking of ‘Democrat’ Ronald Reagan, when he was running for his first term as California governor he swore he would not raise taxes. Of course when he got into office he found out he couldn’t slash enough of the budget and raised taxes. He showed leadership and raised taxes rather than make any more cuts to California’s prized education system. A true Democrat indeed.

Hector

January 24th, 2010
2:01 pm

John

January 24th, 2010
2:23 pm

To Lewis, January 24th, 2010 8:44 am,
If you are so worried about teacher furloughs and the effect on your kids education, why don’t you and all your like parasitic kind step up to the plate and start paying for your kids education via an education tuition tax that would directly support the education of your spawn instead of trying to reach deeper into my pockets since I don’t have any kids? Why do you think that the money I work for would be better spent paying for the upkeep of your spawn instead of silly expenses like paying for my food and shelter? If you all want to reproduce like rabbits why should you not have to pay for the expenses that result? Parents should have to pay a tuition tax for every unit that is in the school system and your ability to pay that tax should be evaluated prior to being allowed to spawn. PAY FOR YOUR OWN DAMN KIDS !!!!

MT

January 24th, 2010
3:59 pm

Now, covertly and under the radar, our state leaders have hatched a scheme which will permit large scale timber cutting in state parks–STATE PARKS! And at the same time they are still pushing endless tax cuts for the wealthy and business cronies. The last refuge for common people, our beloved beautiful state parks, are to be despoiled and raped to generate revenue to pay for these tax cuts. These short-sighted, greedy and self-serving politicians are evil to the core.

Just a taxpayer

January 24th, 2010
6:45 pm

I have said it before and it gets removed, but the growth of state government (merit position counts) over the last 7 years exceeded porportionately the growth of Georgia’s population. Georgia needs privately developed jobs and growth, not growth using state jobs.

MCM

January 24th, 2010
7:00 pm

More money will NOT help in educating our children. We need to get rid of No Child Left Behind and let the teachers use their knowledge and common sense to teach our children. Our teachers’ hands are tied. The schools’ curricular consist of subjects that don’t amount to a “hill of beans” and do not teach our children anything. Too, parents need to get on the bandwagon and get involved in their children’s education. One of our high schools has a 77 percent graduation rate which is not good. We might as well do away with the State Board of Education. That would save a lot of money because our local school systems answer to no one but the voters. What good is the State Board of Education????? Same with the Federal Board of Education. I’m 71 years old, and I’m very frustrated with how drastically things have changed regarding the education of our children. Our school are so afraid they will get sued or that someone will be offended. I say “HOGWASH.” Where’s the discipline??? Discipline starts at home. With my boys, the school knew that all they had to do was call me or my husband if our boys misbehaved in school, and that problem would be taken care of immediately. Let’s wake up AMERICA!!!!!

Sic semper tyrannis

January 25th, 2010
12:23 am

As a non-breeding adult, I smiled reading John’s comment on a Tuition Tax. I sometimes wish we could put a usage component (like gas tax) on some services, including fire and police protection. Call 911 – get hit for a $25 service fee. Use public schools? Pay $50 per year per child to take some burden off homeowners. This would make people think twice before reproducing or daring to be poor. Of course, if we were serious about balancing the budget, we’d collect all the sales and income taxes due us, especially from corporations, legalize medical marijuana and maybe open a few casinos. Don’t see that happening anytime soon.

However, as a citizen of a greater community, I accept the fact that the public good trumps my individual interests. Rising education levels promote entrepreneurship, new technologies and increased standards of living for all. A state full of scientists, engineers and business leaders making great money is better for everyone than a state full of migrant workers, burger flippers and chicken pluckers. Without quality education, Georgia will become another West Virginia, politically weak, exploited for its natural resources and perennially losing its best and brightest to greener opportunities. I’m just one legislative calamity away from moving to a state that believes in the sanctity of the public trust, has compassion for its citizens and is transparent and accountable in its financial operations. This has nothing to do with political parties. It has everything to do with the knowledge that all citizens are mutually connected contributors and decisions should be made on the basis of maximizing the public good – not for personal enrichment. The same ‘me-first’ entitlement that allowed Bernie Madoff and Enron to thrive has permeated politics for too long. The state and nation need statesmen who see the big picture and move toward a unified vision – not tunnel visioned bureaucrats looking for job security.

t ls

January 25th, 2010
6:44 am

Perdue’s comments that he treats education as a” favored son or daughter” are a farce. Every year he has been in office he has reduced the education budget due to “austerity cuts”. This happened even when the state economy was robust! Teachers across the state are NOT keeping a positive attitude. I know, I am one. We are angry. Pay is being cut but we are expected to attend parent teacher conferences, sponsor enriching clubs and be available for extra help for students. All this is done AFTER school, on our own time for free. Many teachers are cutting this back.

Perdue & Cox would like you to believe that the children are not being impacted-they are. Furlough days equal less planning time. Good education is about 60% planning. Class sizes are increasing to levels that make your child a number. Please remember this during elections – VOTE COX OUT!

tc

January 25th, 2010
9:01 am

could someone tell me how my generation (60+) did as well as we did academically with higher pupil/teacher ratios than those of today? it seems to me children are more worldly today, but is the material being taught harder than my day because it appears we are not making the progress everyone thinks we should. how does all this education spending produce more productive citizens?

Aquagirl

January 25th, 2010
9:27 am

Hey, teachers, STFU. Didn’t y’all get into a snit with Roy Barnes, which partially resulted in his losing the election? The people teaching our kids are so stupid they helped elect the hot steaming mess inhabiting the Governors office. They ought to have MORE furlough days for teachers, as far as I’m concerned.

lmno

January 25th, 2010
9:57 am

I would gladly pay more taxes for the next few years to get us through this and not have to cut vital academic programs for our children. I don’t want to live in a state with poorly educated people anymore. I will pay more to have better educated citizens.

However, it seems odd that in all the talk about cutting programs, its always academics. Cut the proms, football teams, basketball, homecoming, and other programs that are not vital to our math, launguage, and science development. When real estate comes back and tax revenues return, then you can play your games and have your dances.

howard

January 25th, 2010
10:12 am

Cox has defended the Governor time and time again, not teachers, students and schools. She has sat quietly by while school funding has been drastically cut during the Republican administration. Class size goes up and teacher salaries go down and she does nothing. Judges are loudly to protect court funding. Police chiefs and fire chiefs fight to retain their funding. Ms. Cox does nothing but “explain” the Governor’s rationale. She should be expelled.

Bush's Economy

January 25th, 2010
11:18 am

The History of Class Sizes -
2000 – Barnes passed legislation to reduce class sizes across the board
2001 – Sonny/Kathy “temporarily” suspended the reduced class size law
2009 – Sonny/Kathy “temporarily” waived even the OLD large cap on class size to allow even bigger classes
2010 – bigger classes / teachers on furloughs

Amazing! Barnes was reducing our classes 10 years ago, and we’ve twice voted in the Sonny/Kathy team. The one thing consistently shown to increase education performance and these yahoos do the opposite! Vote them out now! Close every park in the state until we can balance the education budget!

Thoughtful

January 25th, 2010
12:44 pm

When you think about cutting schools, the reason they don’t cut proms, band, and sports is because many systems have already transferred these costs to the parents. I paid for my daugter’s and son’s proms, their band participation, their band trips, and my daugher’s tennis team. This include equipment, transportation, camps, uniforms, instruments, etc.

My local high school isn’t supported by the Tech or UGA athletic foundation. Its supported by parents. He!!, the walkway in front of the band room is covered with the bricks purchased by band supporters to pay for the building. The football boosters are raising money to renovate the football stadium, and they have already paid for other infrastructure (weight rooms, training rooms, video equipment …) to support their kids.

Its great to say lets cut these ‘extra’ activities but this idea goes to the root of the problem with education in GA. Our educators are not the ones being asked how to improve education. Instead we ask developers, lawyers, real estate sales people, etc., or in other words, we don’t ask the people who have studied education, we instead leave education in the hands of the uneducated and wonder why we are failing.

When you are voting this Nov., ask yourself, how much does this person truly understand education? Our Governor is a vet, and he will go down in history for supporting fishing, farming, and for publicly castrating cats and dogs. Cathy Cox is an educator who is trying to make a difference in a state that basically doesn’t care. At least I see her trying, and under her the state has made progress. However, you have to go behind the sound bites to see it.

Clueless

January 26th, 2010
6:29 am

Why do we need 159 counties and 180 or so school districts in a state the size of Georgia? Redundant services and excessive government and school expenses are the result.

Surely all those in the General Assembly who want Less Government and Lower Taxes can see that?