How Much Is Too Much?

How would you categorize a state government whose budget had expanded by more than 33 percent in just the past five years? What if you knew that the same government had forced its citizens to pay nearly an extra $1 billion in taxes in each of those years?

You might guess I was describing a state like Massachusetts that is dominated by tax-and-spend liberals thinking up new ways to drain dollars from the pockets of hard-working citizens.

In fact, I am describing the state of Georgia, a state full of conservative people about as different from Massachusetts as could be.

Just look at the numbers. For fiscal year 2003, when Democrat Roy Barnes was governor for six months and was succeeded by Republican Sonny Perdue for six months, the state budget was a little over $15 billion. In his successive years as governor, Perdue has recommended a larger budget each year: $15.7 billion, then $16.8 billion, then $18.3 billion, then $19.4 billion, and finally, $20.2 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

In his wildest dreams, Roy Barnes never proposed a budget even close to what the conservative, small-government Perdue wants to spend.

I cite these numbers because a faction of the political leadership under the Gold Dome has been agitating for a constitutional amendment that would put a cap on what state government could spend. They favor a mechanism similar to the “taxpayers’ bill of rights” – also known as TABOR – that Colorado enacted in 1992.

Under the TABOR model, government spending could not increase more than some arbitrary combination of the percentage growth in population and inflation. Any revenues over that level would be refunded to taxpayers. Only with such a constitutional prohibition, say TABOR proponents, can you put a stop to wasteful government spending.

There is, in fact, a power greater than any TABOR-like prohibition that can control government spending. It’s called a legislature. During the five years Perdue has been governor, the state Senate has been controlled by a majority of Republicans. For three of his five years as governor, Perdue has had a House of Representatives also controlled by a GOP majority.

The governor and his legislative colleagues have had the power to cut the budget to any level they chose. All they had to do was cast their votes for it. They chose not to.

Does this mean that Perdue and his cohorts are a feckless bunch who are spending taxpayer funds wildly? No. They are acknowledging how the real world works. Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. We added more than 1.7 million people during the 1990s and have grown by an estimated 1.2 million since the 2000 census.

These extra people have needed more roads to drive their cars on, more schools to educate their children, more hospitals to treat them when they are sick, more clean water to drink, more sewage systems to dispose of their waste. They’ve also worked and expanded the economy and paid more taxes into the state treasury. That’s why you have a state budget that grows by about $1 billion a year.

The budget hasn’t mushroomed because a bunch of big-spending politicians have been wasting your money. It’s grown to provide the basic services that people expect – even demand – from their government, and they demand these regardless of party affiliation. The Department of Community Health recently published a map showing the number of PeachCare recipients in each county. In solidly Republican counties such as Gwinnett, Paulding, Douglas and Fayette, tens of thousands of people have signed up for this government “giveaway.”

As long as folks want to move here, demand for these services and their resulting cost will continue to rise. It’s an inexorable reality that confronts anyone who offers himself or herself for public office. You’re not going to change that reality by trying to put an artificial limit on spending and taxing.

It’s worth noting that in Colorado, which enacted the TABOR that’s held up as model for us to emulate, voters eventually realized the spending cap was crippling the state’s ability to provide decent roads and good schools. They voted to suspend it two years ago.

Categories: Political Notes