Local politicians forecast stormy budget days ahead

The Great Recession is the biggest worry for Rep. Matt Ramsey (R- Peachtree City), Sen. Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone) and Sen. Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg), all of whom weighed in on the ongoing efforts by the General Assembly to offset current revenue shortfalls and balance the budget ending June 30 as required by state law.

“It’s going to be tough but we’re going to do it,” Ramsey said, noting his concern about putting a further burden on Georgia taxpayers. “We have those tough choices ahead but I can’t imagine a worse thing than raising taxes.”

But impacts to the budgets of state agencies are inevitable. All three said Gov. Sonny Perdue’s estimate on revenue shortfalls for the July 1 through June 30 fiscal year totaled approximately $1.2 billion. The jury is still out on the dollar cuts that will be needed to get through the remainder of the fiscal year ending June 30, they said.

Ramsey agreed with Seabaugh and Chance that the budget areas he expected to be least impacted were public safety, education and transportation infrastructure.

All three legislators noted the three furlough days taken thus far by every state employee. Those numbers add up to about $246 million, Ramsey said. The dollar cost of the furlough days has to be combined with the 5 percent budget reductions across departments to get to the total that can be subtracted from the estimated $1.2 billion shortfall.

Those figures should be available sometime in the next couple of weeks, Ramsey said, adding that economists’ projections differ and present a challenge for legislators.

“The Senate’s concerned is that it may be more than ($1.2 billion),” Chance said of the projected shortfall in revenues. “We’re still looking at revenues from last month.”

And Seabaugh said some state agencies are looking at additional cuts that could total 8-10 percent of their budgets. The General Assembly, too, has taken five furlough days with another six furlough days announced Tuesday.

“This economy is the worst in more than 70 years and it’s worse than many citizens have ever witnessed,” Seabaugh said. “We’ll survive this but we need to understand that we are all in this together and we must pull together.”

Chance said Georgia law demands that the budget be balanced, which is a good thing.

“We have to make some tough decisions but we don’t want to raise taxes,” he said.

Once decisions have been reached about how to balance the budget for the current fiscal year legislators will turn their attention to FY 2011.

Also weighing in on Georgia’s budget woes was state School Superintendent Kathy Cox. Georgia’s K-12 funding accounts for approximately 38 percent of the state budget, Cox said Monday.

Echoing local legislators, Cox said, “Teachers understand that these are tough times and the state has to make cuts. Let’s make education the first priority and let the numbers reflect that.”

Georgia teachers have a starting salary of $34,442 and an average salary of $48,300 with a 10-year increase of 42.1 percent, according to the teacher tracking website www.teacherportal.com.

While Georgia’s starting salary ranks 14th nationally and the average salary ranks 17th, the website’s salary comfort index places Georgia at number 3 in the nation behind Illinois and Delaware. The salary comfort score indicates how far a teacher’s salary will go in each state and is derived by measures such as the cost of living, average salaries and starting salaries.

Local legislators said the functional end of the recession will hinge on the return of jobs to the state workforce.

“We have to evaluate everything government is doing. We’ve got to find ways to help business stimulate more business. And small businesses are going to be at the heart of the recovery,” Seabaugh said. “So we need to find what government is doing to prevent those jobs from being created. The recovery means getting people back to work.”

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