Atlanta Forward: What do Georgians want for Georgia?

“It would be easy to sit here and dread the tough decisions that lie ahead. But now is not the time to retreat. Now is the time to dig in even deeper and do the hard things so that our children and grandchildren will know a better Georgia.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue, 2010 State of the State address.

Shrewd tactics and the courage to implement them let governments and businesses alike balance budgets in the short-term. That’s good management. It shouldn’t be confused with its cousin called leadership.

And leadership is what’s most needed for Georgia to develop a winning strategy to both survive the current fiscal storms and not sledgehammer to useless rubble the starting blocks we’ll need to grow again once times improve.

For Team Georgia to win in 2010 and beyond, the General Assembly must distinguish strategy from tactics as a billion-dollar budget shortfall stubbornly lingers around the Gold Dome. It may help to envision first the Georgia that is, the Georgia we need and the Georgia we hope never to see.

During this legislative session, state lawmakers have cast their eyes far and near in search of reductions needed to balance the budget, absent the tax increases that are distasteful to fiscal conservatives and businesses alike.

An example was the recent dust-up over the depth of cuts to Georgia’s university system that led Gov. Sonny Perdue to assure all who would listen that hard-won improvements would not be unwound during the remaining days of his watch. University of Georgia alum Perdue was smart to realize that hacking too deeply into education would come at the cost of long-term disincentives for economic growth. As employers and groups like the Metro Atlanta Chamber labor to bring good-paying work here, their efforts will be blunted if our schools don’t provide graduates capable of mastering tomorrow’s job skills.

Yes, large cuts are likely inevitable in both state programs and job rosters. That realization has thankfully led some legislators to stop chanting about no new taxes and to consider targeted ways to bolster revenue. Taxpayers are hurting now, that’s for sure, but the state should summon the will to boost at least some fees in order to moderate cuts in the critical areas of public safety, education and health care that consume the majority of state dollars. We can no longer afford loss-leader fees that haven’t been adjusted in too many years.

The $1 a pack cigarette tax hike is a good example that can help fill the fiscal hole and assess users some of the cost that smoking imposes on the state.

There are others. Is a Georgia driver’s license really worth only $4 a year? Doubling this fee, or a bit more even, shouldn’t unduly burden drivers.

Boosting fees will help bridge short-term gaps, but Georgia must also think ahead, beyond election year. As legislators pore through budget numbers, they should keep in mind future implications of today’s actions.

In a sense, making today’s cuts will be the easier, though painful, work. The question that will dig far deeper into our wells of vision and courage is to envision the future and how best to get there.

In short, what kind of Georgia do Georgians want? That’s the once-in-a-generation choice now before us.

Facilitating the future requires far more than simply holding down taxes. Yes, companies and investors benefit from a low-tax climate, but making Georgia a tax haven at the cost of overly shredding essential government services will unduly tax our growth for years to come. With a constitutional mandate to balance the state budget, Georgia can’t follow Washington’s profligate ways in buying now and paying later. It’s equally simplistic to believe we need only to hack our way to budget balance and subsequently watch economic growth bloom like crape myrtles in late spring.

Taking the long view requires both fiscal prudence and a sprinkling of seed capital to spur future growth. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month that large cuts now would position the state to make big investments in infrastructure after recovery takes hold.

In our opinion, Cagle is dead-right about the effect of smart, targeted government spending, but off the mark in his timing.

If Georgia does nothing more than penny-pinch now, we will likely find that competing states are far ahead of us once the recession is behind us.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s March 2 State of the State speech indicates this risk is real. While first praising low taxes and noting that “government must live within its means, or it will destroy our future,” Crist went on to say, “In mid-2008, shortly after the recession began, I created Accelerate Florida to speed up over a billion dollars in direct expenditures for public sector projects.” Crist also called for putting $100 million into state universities as a “down payment” to increase production of science and technology graduates to “strengthen Florida’s future work force.”

We must keep pace with our economic rivals if we’re to secure future prosperity. At a minimum, that means keeping education a priority and fixing critical needs such as transportation.

The Georgia we should want to be uses a potent combination of low taxes and innovation to best ensure our economic future. Better balancing our revenue streams will make that possible.

The Georgia we can’t afford to become is one that has strangled future opportunities in favor of short-term survival.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board