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.
For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.