Contrary to popular opinion, this year’s Legislative session was a success. Many good bills passed, most bad ideas never left the committee room and the budget impasse focused debate on fundamental conservative principles.
This year will be marked as the year the education establishment was finally broken in Georgia. Big ideas were proposed; the “status quo” crowd fought them at every turn – and lost. Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s Charter System Act will give local school boards needed flexibility and accountability and it will, at long last, give start-up charter schools operational funding equity. He also succeeded in kick-starting career academies, which have already dramatically increased Georgia’s dismal graduation rate.
Thanks to Sen. Eric Johnson’s Special Needs Scholarships, disabled public school students will have the option of attending the public or private school that best fits their unique needs. All in all, these are tremendous steps forward in a state needing far more than tinkering around the edges.
Georgia established itself again on the cutting edge of telecommunications policy by opening up the market for video services. The Consumer Choice for Television Act, which passed just two votes short of unanimity in both chambers, dramatically reduces the regulation of television. New technology now allows telephone companies and other technology companies to compete in the video market just as technology breakthroughs now allow cable and other companies to offer telephone service.
Similar deregulatory efforts in other states have expanded investment in rural areas, lowered prices and improved service for consumers.
Despite a plethora of tax reform proposals on the docket, none passed. Georgians await the outcome of the special session to know whether a small tax cut goes through, but major reform must wait for 2008.
It will be worth the wait. Up for debate are two major proposals. SR 282, the Georgia One Tax, would replace the state individual and corporate income taxes with a broad state sales tax of no more than 6.5 percent. HR 900, a proposal authored by economist Arthur Laffer, would eliminate all state and local taxes except “sin” taxes on alcohol and tobacco. They would be replaced by a value-added tax on businesses of 5.75 percent and a flat tax for individuals of 5.75 percent. These bold initiatives will most certainly bring Georgia national attention.
The area of health care represents opportunity lost. A series of market-oriented reforms that were predicted to reduce the uninsured by more than 500,000 were proposed, but none passed. If the nation falls along the path of a nationalized health care system, we will share the blame by ignoring our problems for too long.
The budget feud produced great drama and constitutional uncertainty, but the positive aspect was the opportunity for debate on serious principles. The lieutenant governor and the Senate pushed to exclude non-emergency spending from the amended budget; Speaker Glenn Richardson and the House argued that surplus money should be returned to the taxpayers rather than spent.
Georgia’s spending process, however, could benefit from a healthy dose of fiscal conservatism. Something is terribly wrong when one of the wealthiest counties in the state, Cobb, is the leading recipient of pork projects. Among the more than $10 million of state taxpayer dollars designated for Cobb was $8 million for an unnamed charter school, $2.5 million for an arts center and grants for, among other things, a high school athletic program, and school laptop computers and roof repairs.
If Cobb County can afford these expenses, why are state taxpayers subsidizing the wealthy residents of Cobb? Clinch and Wheeler, two of the poorest counties in the state, received no local grants from the state. Don’t they have any unmet needs? Were they too proud to ask? Did their elected officials vote the wrong way on a certain issue?
The issue is not to single out Cobb County. Nearly everyone plays this game, and local projects are sometimes defensible. A capital investment in the port in Savannah, while it certainly helps the citizens of Chatham County, also benefits Georgia’s overall economy. If one of the poorest counties in the state needs help meeting certain basic health and safety needs, there is an argument for the state to step in to assist.
But how do we decide what “projects” are legitimate and which are “pork?” Georgia should adopt a set of stringent tests to limit this practice before someone builds a “bridge to nowhere.”
A good start would be to ask these questions of every proposal: Is this a core function of government or could it best be funded in the private sector? Is this a state or local responsibility? Does this project benefit a broad group of citizens or a special interest? Is there evidence this is a local responsibility that cannot be met because it would place an undue burden on local government? Do local elected officials justifiably support the project? Has the project gone through an open debate to determine that it merits priority?
Sunshine is a proven preventive measure for spending abuse. Rep. Jill Chambers led the way this year by bringing the same focus on disclosure and transparency to state spending as she has with the MARTA budget. Her legislation won unanimous approval in the Legislature. It requires an annual summary of all state contracts of $20,000 or more in electronic format so citizens will be able, as President Bush put it when he signed similar federal legislation, “to Google their tax dollars.”
The “sausage making” analogy to lawmaking was particularly appropriate this year, but the General Assembly had some praiseworthy accomplishments if judged solely on outcomes. Major issues are on the table for next year in the areas of taxes, health care, education funding and state spending. Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives have a great opportunity to define the debate by revisiting core values and establishing clear principles to guide their decisions. Those who do are likely to lead Georgia for some time to come.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.