Harper: Georgia’s Budget Fat Is More Myth Than Reality

Charlie Harper’s weekly syndicated column, as it appeared in Peach Pundit:

Ronald Reagan used to say of liberals “The problem isn’t what they believe. It’s just that so much of what they believe isn’t true.” It’s time the party of Reagan examine what they believe about their own state budget.

The Joint House-Senate Committee on Transportation Funding that met 8 times publicly this summer and fall throughout the state include both House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen for a reason. They are the elected officials that best understand how Georgia spends its current funds, where current and future needs are, and where, if possible, cuts can be made.

They’ve been quite adept at cuts. It’s been the mantra since the financial crash. But truth be told, most state agencies have had mandatory across the board spending reductions off and on since the Miller administration. The days of billion dollar supplemental budgets have been gone for a decade. Georgia is running as a relatively lean state.

Yet, if you talk to many GOP legislators and most activists, they will swear to you that our budget is fat, and there is much that can and should be cut to fund our priorities. They will swear this up until you ask them to find the fat for you – and you insist they be specific.

And thus it is disheartening in the wake of the transportation bill that passed the House that many legislators are lamenting a change in the collection of gas taxes that will likely cost Georgia drivers an extra $5 per month. They claim that others “didn’t even try to find the money elsewhere”. These are generally folks that didn’t ever attend a study committee meeting, nor have ever asked this question of House Budget Chairman Terry England or Senate Chairman Jack Hill.

This brings us back to having strong beliefs but lacking facts and data to back suppositions. When looking at our budget, the way to determine if we’re in fact fat or lean would be to look at some comparisons of other states. Specifically, we need to understand how Georgia’s spending habits compare to our southern, conservatively governed regional neighbors.

Total Expenditures - SE States

According to a comparison by Ballotpedia using 2013 figures, Georgia’s government spending per capita, using state tax dollars and state administered federal funds, is $4,111 per person. The only state in the region lower than us is Florida. Given the age skew of Florida’s population which affects both lower than average student populations and a medical industry supported predominantly with federal Medicare dollars, it would be hard for Georgia to target Florida as a similar state.

When you look at our other neighbors, Georgia’s spending per capital looks down right lean. South Carolina is 14% higher per capita. Tennessee is 18%, Alabama is 21%, and perhaps our most similar neighbor, North Carolina spends 27% more than Georgia for each of its residents. NC is not the highest, but at the midpoint of South Eastern states, with Virginia (31%), Louisiana (56%), Mississippi (58%) and Arkansas (77%) even higher.

Let’s say that another way. North Carolina, a similar state with almost the same population that Georgia competes with on a regular basis, spends ten billion dollars more than Georgia on government services every year.

Georgia and North Carolina each have roughly 10 million residents. North Carolina’s government spends ten billion dollars more.

The point here isn’t to say that Georgia needs to raise spending ten billion dollars. The point is that when a need is clearly established, those who insist that there is “fat” somewhere in the budget have a responsibility to say exactly where it is. Because the metrics say that if Georgia is fat, our conservatively governed neighbors are obscenely obese.

Georgia spends 5.2% of its budget on transportation. North Carolina spends 9.9%. So on a budget that is already per capita smaller than most of those in our region, Georgia prioritizes transportation infrastructure at roughly half of what our most similar neighbor state does.

For those that believe our spending disproportionately goes to social programs, you should note that .1% of our budget goes to public assistance and 21.5% goes to Medicaid. Each of those percentages are the lowest of any state contiguous to Georgia.

State Budget Comparision By Category

Many are saying that they agree the need is there. Now it is time to understand that this need must be funded. Otherwise those saying this is a need are relating transportation to a wish list item that will only receive funding when it’s convenient at a later date.

Those who continue to offer nebulous suggestions to cut the budget elsewhere are the ones that must bear the responsibility to be very specific as to where these cuts must come from. Because an objective analysis of Georgia’s spending relative to those of our conservative neighbor states shows that we’re already much leaner in our spending than they are.

Georgia Republicans have been in charge of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion and Legislature for over a decade now. Whether an elected official or party activist, knowing in your heart that there is fat in Georgia’s budget should no longer be an accepted premise nor talking point. Unless someone is willing to specifically identify the largess, it is time to demand that the focus shift to identifying the budget realities we face and find the most appropriate method to fund them.

Charlie Harper is the Editor of PeachPundit.com, and is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a group which works on policy solutions for Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

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