A one-sided budget battle

Budget crunch makes pork extra tasty

Talk about an exercise in futility. Some Senate Democrats actually laughed out loud when Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, had the gall to ask them to shift $250,000 from the governor’s budget to a Department of Human Resources Family Caregiver program.

It’s not that Senate Democrats are opposed to programs like Family Caregiver; it’s just not as high a priority as what Johnson proposed to take money from. He asked that the money come from $1.8 million budgeted to pay the attorneys who are in Washington fighting for district maps that will allow Democrats to maintain their vise-like grip on the General Assembly.

Sen. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, tried to move all $1.8 million to Babies Born Healthy, a cash-strapped program that gives pre-natal care to families that aren’t eligible for Medicaid.

He got laughed at too.

Such is the way business is done here — Democrats control the General Assembly and can easily pass a budget chock full of projects for themselves. Republicans like Johnson are reduced to whiners, helpless to reduce spending, or better yet, push for pet projects in their districts.

It’s even tougher this year because the economic recession has caused the state’s income to drop — tax revenues have fallen seven straight months in a row — and there’s less fun money to spread around.

It makes it difficult for lawmakers to prioritize important, legitimate projects. They’re forced to ask themselves: Should that $2.6 million go toward the multi-modal transportation station in downtown Atlanta, or should that money be used in the Department of Education’s request for an $8.6 million continuing education program for teachers?

But even as lawmakers scrap over a couple thousand dollars for a project that deserves to be funded, the budget still contains millions of dollars in public funded pet-projects, political paybacks, and toys for the good ol’ boys.

Since the governor first released his budget recommendations in mid-January, Johnson has kept a list of what he considers to be pork-barrel projects.

The pork was at its thickest when House Democrats stuffed it with $64.8 million in projects Johnson identified as non-priority, extraneous and even ridiculous.

Last week, the Senate cut more than $80 million of projects, yet the budget still includes $243,600 to go toward a slide at a water park, $50,000 for the Georgia Shrimper Association, $35,000 to add Dooly County to a hunting program called the Bobwhite Quail Initiative, and $20 million to offset the university system’s switch from quarters to semesters, an event that took place three years ago.

Johnson zealously questions the $279,720 going toward the construction of new libraries, because he says the libraries and gym improvements are probably paybacks for the lawmakers in whose district the work takes place.

He wonders the same thing about $25,000 that will fund $300,000 in bonds to fix up “PE facilities” (gyms) at three two-year colleges. One of the schools, Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College, is in Tifton, the home of Rep. Austin Scott, who was one of the first Republicans to support Gov. Roy Barnes’ push to change the state flag. Another of the schools is Middle Georgia College in Cochran, which is in the district of Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, chairman of the House Appropriations committee and one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state.

Other questionable projects were cut, though, such as the $57,500 Holistic Stress Control program for inmates and about $14 million that would have expanded state park golf courses.

Granted, politicians are behaving slightly more responsibly this time around because it’s an election year. That, and the revenue decline, just means “the pork projects in this kind of budget are more spread around,” according to Johnson.

Ironically, the budget crunch is the same reason some legislators have used to defend cutting indigent defense, and the pre-natal care program Babies Born Healthy.

When defending the choices he and his colleagues on the appropriations committee have made, that committee’s chairman, George Hooks, D-Americus, points to the tough economic times, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the body dumping scandal in Walker County that may cost the state about $10 million to clean up. He says the decisions were fiscally responsible, and funding projects like Family Caregiver and Babies Born Healthy is “admirable, but not responsible.”??