The sober language of reality is slowly spreading through the state Capitol.
The Legislature is in the midst of a two-week hiatus, while knots of lawmakers pore through the innards of an $18 billion state budget.
They’re looking for $1.2 billion or more that can be sliced away, or paid for with new funds — be they called tax hikes, fee increases, revenue enhancements or tuition maximizations.
We are used to Republican rhetoric from Washington, where a congressman can rail against out-of-control federal spending from dawn to dusk — and in the evening still take credit for the money that Democrats send the way of his voters.
But in the state Capitol, where the GOP is actually in charge of the machinery, Republicans have gone quiet as they grope for the line that divides sloganeering from real life — the balance between what you and I need from government, and what we’re willing to pay.
The important parties are giving themselves plenty of room to maneuver.
House Speaker David Ralston has expressed his discomfort with a hospital bed tax proposed by Perdue to help fill the gap, and a cigarette tax hike pushed as an alternative. But this week he acknowledged to a reporter that both measures remain on the table.
Over the weekend, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle distributed to the 34 Republicans in his Senate a 19-page, full-color collection of talking points about the state’s budget crisis. The volume emphasized “aggressive” hacking already performed by the Legislature.
“These are unprecedented times. We’ve gone from a $21 billion budget to what is virtually a $15 billion budget,” Cagle said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m very committed to producing a budget that is fiscally responsible and does not increase the tax burden on the citizens of this state.”
Does that include revenue enhancements by any other name? Cagle wouldn’t go there.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has been the most forthright about unpleasant solutions.
On Monday morning, his spokesman, Bert Brantley, e-mailed reporters and asked them to take note of a chart in the Wall Street Journal that ranked state governments by the amount spent per individual.
In 2008, Georgia came in 48th, behind only Florida and Texas, at $3,729.
“The governor’s not running again. This budget was not based on the politics of having to go back to the ballot box,” Brantley told a reporter. “Others do have to worry about that. And that’s fine.”
Whether the solution is a hospital bed tax or a cigarette tax, the governor is not particular. “We are very open to other alternatives and other ideas and just looking to get the problem fixed,” Brantley said. “They don’t need to run that by us or anything like that. We’re not involved in this to try and be a check.”
Other possibilities, mentioned elsewhere, include a hefty buyout program for state employees nearing retirement, and outright layoff for a certain number of the 90,000 people who hold state jobs.
There are tipping points in the argument between more budget cuts and the need to preserve what we have.
One may be the 180-day school year. So far, teacher furloughs have been drawn from training days. A school official told lawmakers this week that further cuts may have to cut into classroom time.
Not a good thing for a state pitching itself as a haven for business, one that wants to recover quickly after the Great Recession passes.
On the other hand, many Republican lawmakers — all of whom serve part-time, without much staff — are still of the opinion that, even after seven years of GOP control, they don’t have a firm grasp on state spending.
On Wednesday, state lawmakers waved copies of the Red and Black, the University of Georgia campus newspaper, pointing to an article that detailed raises to top-salaried university employees.
“I believe the bureaucrats that run the agencies can do a little more in finding savings,” said House Rules Chairman Bill Hembree (R-Winston). “I want us, as a legislative body, to push that to the limit. They’ll come and tell us how difficult times have been, but I don’t think they’ve made the difficult decisions.”
Hembree says he considers himself a member of the tea party movement, and acknowledges worries among some members about July primary opposition.
This is not an unforeseen conflict. Last May, in his final appearance as governor before the state GOP, Perdue warned of the dangers of government by slogan.
“We cannot allow our party to lose out because we were mortally wounded by friendly fire. We cannot sacrifice good, conservative government and effective leadership to mantras and attack ads from our own,” he said.
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