The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of Thursday, June 30, 2016 quoted Georgia Public Policy Foundation President Kelly McCutchen extensively in a front-page article on Georgia’s state budget and spending. The article is reprinted in full below; access it online at the newspaper’s website here.
A record state budget of $23.7 billion goes into effect Friday, bringing pay raises for thousands of teachers and an expansive road and bridge construction program.
On the surface, it is seen as yet another sign that a state that once struggled to keep schools open 180 days a year has left the Great Recession in its rear-view mirror.
But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state budgets shows, when inflation and population growth are considered, many areas of government spending remain below where they where in 2008 when the recession hit.
On a per-capita, inflation-adjusted basis, state spending on universities and technical colleges is down more than 20 percent, on criminal justice and public safety more than 10 percent, and on natural resources by more than one-third. Even spending on k-12 schools — the target of much of the state’s increased revenue in recent years — is below where it was in 2008 when population growth and inflation are taken into account.
Meanwhile, spending on public health programs such as Medicaid, student scholarships such as HOPE and, thanks to new taxes, transportation has ballooned.
None of that surprises Alan Essig, a one-time state budget analyst and former director of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Essig, who is now a consultant, has studied Georgia spending trends for years, and he said tax collections, while up, have not kept pace with population growth and inflation.
That’s important because state government, unlike the federal government, can’t spend more than it takes in.
“It’s kind of what I expected,” Essig said after reviewing the AJC’s analysis. “Clearly, we’re not back to where we were pre-recession in terms of revenue.”
‘Record budget … record population’
State House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the slow growth goes back even further.
“If you look at per-capita spending, we are somewhere around where we were in 1998,” England said.
You wouldn’t necessarily know that looking at the raw numbers. Overall state spending in the upcoming fiscal year will be far above what it was before the recession.
But as England said, “We have a record budget, but we also have a record population.”
During the upcoming fiscal year, the state is budgeted to spend roughly $1.1 billion more on k-12 schools than it did in fiscal 2008. Per-pupil spending will be higher, but inflation rose faster than enrollment.
Public safety/law enforcement spending is up 14.7 percent. Spending on public health care has jumped about $1.4 billion.
Direct state funding to the University System of Georgia and technical colleges has dipped.
But the agency that gives out scholarships to students attending those schools — such as the HOPE scholarship — has seen its budget increase more than 50 percent. And unlike most other agencies, the University System has been able to make up for cuts in per-pupil spending from the state by raising tuition. So while the state has chipped in less for years, students and scholarship programs paid more.<