Blinded by the G's

God, guns and gays hog the spotlight under the Gold Dome

Got God? Got guns? Got gays? For Republicans in the 2004 General Assembly, the answer to the three G's is check, check and check.

But while the GOP has preoccupied the Legislature with constitutional amendments to protect Georgians' right to hunt and heterosexuals' exclusive right to make one another miserable in marriage, not to mention a bill that would allow courthouses to post the Ten Commandments in their halls, the lawmakers seem to have forgotten some things — 27,200 somethings, in fact.

That's the number of pregnant women and children who will be dropped from the Medicaid rolls if legislators don't pull their heads out of the sand and Gov. Sonny Perdue's 2005 budget proceeds as is.

Not that the guv'ner is counting.

Perdue spoke to National Public Radio reporter Juan Williams on "Morning Edition" last week. As the state faces a $600 million deficit — roughly 5 percent of the state's budget — Williams asked the Republican what cuts he's making.

"Well, I don't have that list before me here this morning, but I'd be glad to get them to you," the governor answered.

It would be nice to think Perdue could remember what programs he plans to cut considering he's the one who did the chopping.

In case it was just short-term memory loss, here's a primer: If roughly $80 million isn't found or reallocated, 12,500 pregnant women and 14,700 children will be dropped from Medicaid because of tighter income requirements. Many of the children will be eligible for PeachCare, the state's child health care program, but because of budget trimming, premiums for PeachCare will rise to as high as $90 per month, the highest levels for any such program in the nation.

State Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell, says he will vote against Perdue's proposed 2005 budget if changes aren't made to shore up Medicaid and protect women and children.

"I'm not radical, but I am disgusted," says Powell, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He's no liberal, either, and represents a Republican-heavy district in northeast Georgia.

Powell claims the budget cuts will be "devastating" and could shutter hospitals that serve a high percentage of Medicaid patients such as Atlanta's Grady Memorial and the 75 to 80 small, rural hospitals he says are already on the "intensive care" list.

Budget reductions to health care and education — an estimated $380 million in proposed education cuts in fiscal 2005 alone — will require counties to raise property taxes. Powell says his counties are talking about 3 mill to 4 mill property tax hikes. In places that don't offer the salaries that metro Atlanta does, that's a major new tax burden.

While lawmakers grandstanded during the gay marriage debate last Thursday, Powell quietly passed around an analysis of the coming Medicaid train wreck — compounded by a gigantic glitch in the state's new computer system that overpaid hospitals, nursing homes and doctors by some $400 million.

Linda Lowe, a consumer health advocate, states the obvious: Pregnant women who lack health coverage will still to go to hospitals to have their babies, and since they'll lack prenatal care, they're more likely to experience costly medical complications and longer hospital stays. (Georgia currently has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the South.) Someone will have to pay for them. That somebody will likely be hospitals, and that will mean job cuts.

Then "[hospitals] become more dangerous for everybody," Lowe says. "If you look at the total picture, what we've got is a declining quality of care."

She adds that the health care cuts will cost the state at least 3,000 jobs. When nurses and techs lose their jobs, it decreases the money spent in individual communities. There's a ripple effect.

Powell says he would support statewide tax increases. "Nobody likes to talk about taxes, but the fact is you can't run government ... without revenues."

But tax hikes in an election year? Yeah, right.

Arguably the most radical (but timely) plan would be to reform the state's regressive tax code. Currently, the highest tax bracket in Georgia is 6 percent, and for individuals it kicks in at $7,000 of federal adjusted income. For families, the tax bracket begins at just $10,000. That means a Georgia family with an adjusted annual income of $10,001 is taxed at the same rate as a family making $500,000.

Basically, it's a flat tax in a state filled with metro-area McMansions. In Fayette County, for instance, the median household income in 1999 was more than $70,000.

But major changes are unlikely, according to a number of legislators, and that's why the Georgia Coalition United for a Responsible Budget, a group of progressive organizations including the Georgia Rural Urban Summit and the League of Women Voters, proposes a number of less drastic alternatives:

- Close corporate tax loopholes. Based on current studies, CURB estimates that corporate loopholes cost the state about $287 million in 2001.

- Increase the revenue estimate — currently $1.6 billion — owed by corporations and individuals in back taxes.

- Opt out of the federal estate tax plan. Federal legislation requires states to reduce estate taxes by 25 percent per year. The reductions will cost Georgia an estimated $89 million to $110 million in fiscal 2005. The only way to stem the reductions is for states to separate from the federal estate tax plan. North Carolina is among 17 states that have already done it.

These are just a few options available to Georgia legislators — assuming they're willing to divert time to the budget and away from the three G's. Whether they choose to do nothing at all or consider progressive alternatives, one thing's for sure: Someone will wind up paying for the cuts to health care and education. Maybe the Legislature will figure out a way to make it equitable for all Georgians.