It’s all about money, and right now the state of Georgia has a severe shortage of it.
And it is only going to get worse, according to six members of the local General Assembly delegation who met with 65 concerned citizens Saturday morning at the Columbus Public Library.
The General Assembly is in a two-week recess awaiting tax revenue numbers from February before tackling the 2011 fiscal budget. But the lawmakers could looking at cutting as much as $2 billion from a roughly $17 billion budget.
“The only description I have for it is ugly,” said Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus.
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Smith, Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, and Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus are on the House Appropriations Committee, which is meeting during the recess to discuss possible solutions and budget cuts.
Smith points out that the bulk of the state’s budget is tied up in eight areas:
-- K-12 education, $7 billion or 44 percent.-- Community Health, which includes Medicaid, $2.2 billion, 14 percent.
-- University System of Georgia, $1.9 billion, 12 percent.
-- Bond payments, the state’s debt, $1.2 billion, 8 percent.
-- Department of Corrections, $1 billion, 6 percent.
-- Behavioral Health, $800 million. 5 percent.
-- Human Services, $500 million, 3 percent.
-- Technical Colleges, $320 million, 2 percent.
-- Everything else, $1.1 billion, 6 percent.
“Everything else covers 40 agencies and all branches of government, such as Public Safety; Juvenile Justice; Judicial System; Governor’s office, Senate & House; Teachers Retirement; Driver Services; Pardon & Paroles; and Revenue Department,” Smith said.
As programs are on the chopping block and potential taxes are being discussed, those impacted voiced their concerns to the lawmakers.
Columbus Regional Healthcare System Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lance Duke urged the legislators not to pass a proposed hospital bed tax that could generate as much as $274 million.
“Look for alternatives,” Duke said.
The alternative Duke suggested was a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes that could generate as much as $400 million annually.
“Why tax sick people when you could tax one of the causes?” he asked.
Randy Robertson, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, continued his fight to stop the Georgia Bureau of Investigation from closing the regional crime lab in Columbus. It is slated for closure at the end of March.
Robertson contends the closure is political and not economic, pointing to less critical labs that will remain open.
“In the economic times we are dealing with, we have to take politics out of the issue,” he said.
The closure of the Columbus lab will be costly for law enforcement agencies in the 19 counties it serves, Robertson said.Professor John Van Doorn, a professor in the University System, took aim at the cuts to higher education.
“There are two sacred trusts — one is education and the other is public health and safety,” Van Doorn said. “In this kind of budget, we have to focus on what is truly important.”
Columbus attorney Tom Buck spent 38 years in the General Assembly, chairing the powerful House Appropriations Committee near the end of his tenure. He attended Saturday’s meeting.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Buck said. “...I am glad I am not chairman of Appropriations.”
Buck points to state crime lab in Columbus that will be closed. Buck was one of the driving forces to fund the GBI lab here.
“It puts the legislators in a hell of a position,” he said.
Smyre said the gravity of the crisis has not hit home with Georgia citizens.
“We need to explain it where the people get it,” Smyre said.