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Opinion: Remember fiscal responsibility?
Steve Smith
Steve Smith

Two years ago, the federal government passed an ill-advised tax cut package that was optimistically estimated to deliver a $5.2 billion windfall to Georgia’s state tax coffers, but a funny thing happened on the way to Trickle-Down-Utopia – that windfall never materialized.

Well, that’s OK, you say, because surely our fiscally responsible state leadership would have waited to see if the economic prognosticators were correct in their predictions of a giant windfall before they spent the money, right? Nope.

With visions of reelection dancing in their heads, state Republicans rushed to pass a two-part tax cut to the top state income tax rate quicker than you can say Grover Norquist. Predictably, tax revenue dried up, and the state budget went into a tailspin. 

Now, Gov. Brian Kemp is ordering state agencies to slash their budgets for the first time since the Great Recession: 4% this year, 6% next year. And this during a time of steady growth and relative economic stability, no less. All for a tax cut that will save the overwhelming majority of Georgians less than $500 a year.

The governor is using pretty buzzwords like “streamline operations,” “reduce waste,” and “find efficiencies,” which all sound wonderful, except for one thing – there is almost no fat to trim from our state budget. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Georgia does not have a spending problem. In fact, Georgia can boast the second-lowest state spending per capita in the entire country. Only Idaho spends less.

With so little to cut, there is only so much operational-streamlining, waste-reducing and efficiency-finding that can be done before you start depriving people of vital services, and considering the condition of our state’s health care system – ranked 39th nationally by U.S. News & World Report – and our educational system – ranked 30th – the fiscally responsible thing to do in a time of growth and prosperity would be to make sure that our workforce is healthy and well educated.

Medicaid expansion has been a hot topic, and Gov. Kemp has a plan for that – a waiver that would cover just 52,000 people and cost $36 million per year. Democrats have pushed for full Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which would cover 500,000 Georgians at a net cost of around $150 million per year. If you don’t want to do the math yourself, that means Kemp’s waiver plan would cost three times more per person than full Medicaid expansion and give health care to only 10% of the number of Georgians who desperately need it. Where I come from, spending more to get less is the opposite of fiscal responsibility.

We promised our grossly underpaid teachers a $5,000 raise last year and gave them $3,000 of it, promising the rest would come this year. Now the legislature is balking at fulfilling that promise this year, yet they want to enact the second part of their tax cut that would deprive the state of an estimated $500 million in revenue, which happens to be more than enough to cover the amount needed to give our teachers the rest of their promised raise. I’ll gladly forfeit my $114 in annual tax savings to pay our teachers, and I dare say that most of you probably would, too.

I’ve heard our Republican representatives pat themselves on the back for fully funding the Quality Basic Education Act (QBE) last year for the first time since the Great Recession, but I’ve never heard them mention the fact that the formula used to fund the QBE hasn’t been updated since 1985. That’s right. 1985. The formula for funding our schools hasn’t been updated since the heyday of Michael Jackson, Prince and George Michael, all of whom are now dead.

A more cynical person might argue that these unnecessary tax cuts and reckless budget cuts are not a bug in the Kemp administration’s economic policy but a feature. For 40 years, we’ve been fed the line that tax cuts will spur growth which will result in more tax revenue, and for 40 years we have seen that happen exactly 0 times. But who needs facts when you have ideology, so Republicans will continue to chase that trickle down unicorn all the way to ruin. Just ask former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Let’s learn from the tax cut mistakes of others and not drive Georgia into the same ditch that Kansas drove itself into.

Alas, hope springs eternal. The new legislative session started this week, and we have the opportunity to lobby our house representatives, Todd Jones, Sheri Gilligan, and Marc Morris, and our state senator, Greg Dolezal. During election season, they all like to tell us how fiscally responsible they are, so call, text and email them early and often this session and remind them to walk their talk. Tell them to forget the irresponsible tax cuts and feckless budget cuts; pay our teachers, fund our schools and fully expand Medicaid.

Steve Smith is a husband, father, artist, and progressive. He serves on the Executive Board of the Forsyth County Democratic Committee, Follow Steve on Twitter @FoCoSteve.