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Governor's school cuts put burden on local taxes

Legislative update

POSTED: February 12, 2008 5:02 a.m.
This week, the Georgia General Assembly was in official recess, but House and Senate Appropriations Committee members heard from state department heads on their budget requests for the remainder of the current fiscal year as well as fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1.
Gov. Sonny Perdue had outlined his record $21.4 billion state budget proposal to legislators during the first week of the session. One area of the governor's plan that appears to need legislative budget writers' help the most is that of funding for our local schools.
The governor has proposed to cut an additional $141.5 million in state funding to local school systems. Although it is the responsibility of the state government to provide public education, the governor has now cut almost $1.6 billion in local school funding since taking office in 2003, hurting our students and shifting the burden to local school boards and local taxpayers.
When the governor first imposed what he calls "austerity cuts" five years ago, it was understandable because the state was suffering an economic downturn and revenues were tight.
But with the governor's overall spending plan increasing by $1 billion over last year, no one seems to know why it is necessary to continue these tax shifts on local schools - including state leaders from the governor's own political party.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Harbin (R-Evans) pointed out during our budget hearings: "It's forcing districts to make changes, either raising taxes or cutting programs they have been funding locally."
State School Superintendent Kathy Cox added, "That cut is a disappointment to me as well. I am very concerned about that."
Those of us in Liberty County who have seen our local millage rate skyrocket are also concerned, and I will support the legislative effort to restore this funding so the state can once again meet is obligation to educate Georgia's children.
Transportation is another area where the legislature will need to make some adjustments to the governor's new budget plan. A special legislative Transportation Funding Study Committee has revealed alarming deficiencies in the amount of state revenues available to complete transportation projects now under way, much less new construction and resurfacing planned for the coming years.
Over the next five years, the state is facing a funding shortfall of up to $8 billion to simply maintain the status quo. Realistically, though, the shortfall is about $20 billion when you consider the transportation improvements that are currently proposed for Georgia to keep up with the needs of our growing population. Georgia is now paving less than 4 percent of its roads each year. Traditionally, the state has been able to pave 10 percent annually so that every road would be resurfaced at least once per decade. Currently, that frequency has fallen to once every 25 years or more. In addition, many of our bridges have not been replaced or upgraded in the past 40 years.
After the recommendations of the committee are made public, legislation will be introduced to implement a comprehensive strategy to address the funding shortfall and get our transportation program back on track. Among the solutions that may be recommended is a regional local option sales tax, under which residents of multiple counties could join together and vote for a special one-cent tax to fund transportation projects in that region.
Unfortunately, the governor's budget proposal does very little to address the transportation funding crisis, other than a modest revolving loan fund to help local governments finish road projects. The governor has stated that the state Department of Transportation needs to become more efficient before revenues are addressed.
Many lawmakers agree that greater efficiency is needed, but we cannot wait another year to close the revenue gap. It was good to hear this week that House Speaker Glenn Richardson feels the same way. The need for transportation improvements is growing by the day in Georgia, and the state must address the situation now, not later.
On a personal note, I was deeply honored and humbled to receive the very prestigious Tower of Power honor from the 2008 Trumpet Awards on Jan. 12. This was certainly a highlight of my life to have been in the company of so many famous and celebrated Americans, and a tribute to my friends here in Liberty County who have helped me along the way. Thank you again for allowing me to serve as your state representative.

Williams (D-Midway) represents the 165th District (Liberty County) in the Georgia House of Representatives. Contact him at 511 Coverdell Office Building, Atlanta, GA  30334; by phone at 404-656-6372, 404-326-2964, 912-977-5600 or by e-mail at al.williams@house.ga.gov.
 

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