The Company You Keep

Do we want to put ourselves in the company of progressive Southern states like Virginia?

When the Legislature comes back into session in early January, Georgia’s governor will also be sworn in to a new term of office. I don’t know who that person will be, as this column is being written prior to the Nov. 7 election; but I hope the next chief executive will make a decision that badly needs to be made.

Simply put, Georgia’s political leadership should decide once and for all whether this state is content to continue sliding into mediocrity with other low-achieving Southern states, or whether it wants to again be a leader for the region.

Like many other people who grew up down here, I was taught that you are judged by the company you keep.

What kind of company is Georgia keeping? Do we want to put ourselves in the company of progressive Southern states like Virginia (where former governor Mark Warner worked with Democratic and Republican legislators to enact tax increases necessary to keep the state moving ahead) and North Carolina (which emphasizes higher education and the Research Triangle, a stance that enabled it to land a Novartis vaccine plant that Georgia badly wanted to get)?

Or are we satisfied to keep company with states like South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi? I know a lot of good people from those Deep South states and I mean them no personal slur when I say this: Georgia should be striving for something a little better.

It should be discouraging to all of us that on the reading and math portions of the SAT college board exam, the areas on which high school students have been tested for years, Georgia tied for 49th place with South Carolina last year with its average score. This year, Georgia barely moved ahead of South Carolina to take undisputed possession of 49th place on the list. Alabama and Mississippi are still ahead of us.

(And, yes, I know that Gov. Sonny Perdue is bragging about Georgia skyrocketing all the way up to 46th place on the SAT list, but that only happened because the college board added a writing portion to the exam this year. On the math and reading portions, Georgia’s average scores actually dropped by several points.)

We’re not doing so well on other indices either. The number of Georgians without health insurance has increased by 200,000 in recent years. In just the last year, we had a net loss of 900 technology-based jobs. Other well-paying jobs are disappearing because of mergers, bankruptcies and plant closings.

When you talk about problems like this and what should be done about them, the reflexive answer from much of the current political leadership is that taxes are too high and we must keep cutting them so that we can create more jobs.

There are a couple of holes in that argument.

For one thing, Georgia now ranks 42nd or 43rd among the states in the taxes paid by its citizens – in other words, our tax burden is already lighter than all but a handful of other states.

But it’s not light enough for some people. In 2005, the Republican-controlled Legislature (with the support of most Democrats) adopted a huge tax break that amounts to roughly $1 billion over the next decade for the largest Georgia-based corporations.

Lawmakers said the massive tax exemptions would motivate these businesses to generate more jobs for the state’s workers. Yet, within months of that vote, Georgia’s unemployment rate had increased to the point where it exceeded the national jobless rate for the first time in more than 15 years. Big corporations like BellSouth, Delta, and Coca-Cola are eliminating jobs, not adding them.

We gave them the money. Where are the jobs?

It’s not unreasonable to raise the argument of whether it would have been a better deal for Georgia’s citizens if we had set aside that $1 billion tax break for large corporations and used the money instead for public schools, where the governor and the Legislature have cut formula funding by more than $1.2 billion during the past four years.

It’s just possible that a better-educated, more skillfully trained workforce would make Georgia more attractive to those businesses that really could provide more high-paying jobs. It’s something that I hope the next governor will at least start to think about.

Tom Crawford, editor of the news service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.

Categories: Political Notes