Our view: Creative, realistic budget process vital

The ink's dry, for now, on Georgia's $18.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts

July 1. After the long, hard march through the legislative session toward a working budget, it's tempting to hope things can ride for a while.

All parties interested in mending this state's economy and budget should not yield to that temptation. The recession that continues to pound our economy makes standing pat a too-risky move.

Georgia state government's been responsive in working to manage through the downturn by seeking savings and cutting expenses. That's a sound tactical move, but a tactic is not a strategy.

At this critical time, Georgia needs to be proactive and strategic in its approach to the state and its budget. Doing so requires more than a special legislative session that might be called in the near future if revenue shortfalls continue in the coming months.

The economy's the wild card here. No one knows for sure when recovery will begin, both for the nation and for Georgia. It's a safe bet, though, that state revenues will lag recovery by a good bit. That makes thinking broadly about state government even more important if we're to come through the next couple of years in the best possible shape.

Politicians, business leaders and citizens need to start thinking and talking. We're not suggesting tax-and-spend parties by any means. What's needed is meaningful, nonpartisan, aisle-crossing analysis, thinking, debate, planning and action.

This is not a time for standard answers or doctrinaire thinking along political party lines. A more sound place to begin might be with asking questions — hard ones.

For starters, what kind of state do we want to be, realizing that we're often in competition for the economic opportunities that strong businesses bring? What minimum level of services should government provide?

It's also worth asking how Georgia can get ahead of the currently declining state revenue curve. Cutting budgets in response to falling tax revenues merely keeps us abreast of the trend line. Doing so is fiscally prudent and constitutionally mandated, given that Georgia must balance its budget each year. But what more can we do to be proactive as a state?

Gov. Sonny Perdue convened the Commission for a New Georgia to draft a blueprint for moving us into the ranks of best-managed states. Notable progress has been made toward that worthy goal, but state leaders, business interests and other vested parties need to do more. The commission might be a good model of how to approach this challenge.

We'd like for Georgia to be the best-led state coming out of this painful recession. Achieving that will require sound leadership and creativity that takes risks and pushes outside political boxes.

Many may sneer at a process that sounds like do-gooder think-tanking run amok. Given the projected deficits our state's facing in coming years, especially after federal stimulus money fades out in mid-2011, such heckling shouldn't forestall a serious debate.

A good place to start would be taking a blue-sky look at state government with an eye toward seeking efficiencies beyond what Gov. Perdue's process work already has gained. Among Georgia's 119 state agencies, for example, how much could be saved by further consolidating agencies or functions? Are there agencies we can live without? Private businesses routinely do this work — resetting their operations to fit incoming revenues.

Here's another question that may give pause to some: Can Georgia really continue to cut its way to a balanced budget? Opinions differ, even within ranks of fiscal conservatives. Gov. Perdue took some political risk in proposing new taxes during the last legislative session. The super-speeder fine was passed into law as a result.

It would be imprudent at best to try to plug budgetary holes solely using tax increases. That would make businesses think twice about investing or even operating in Georgia.

A question worth real debate, though, is whether some combination of seriously vetted, targeted spending cuts and equally well-explored, strategic hikes in some taxes are what's needed to best balance the state budget. And is a comprehensive approach pre-

ferable to continuing to stanch budget shortfalls mainly by cutting more and more dollars from the budget?

Spending cuts certainly have their place, but it's worth noting that nearly 90 percent of Georgia state spending occurs in just five areas: education, health care, the Department of Human Resources, criminal justice and transportation.

Given that concentration of spending in just a few critical areas, how much more can be reasonably cut? That's a question we have to address as a state. Georgia ranks 49th in per capita spending, according to the Pew Center on the States.

Now's certainly not the time to throw more money at problems, given there's less money to throw anywhere. At some point, though, "less is more" becomes "less is less" and neither taxpayers nor the state economy benefit.

It's up to Georgia's leadership in both the public and private sectors to keep that from happening.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board