published Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Georgia budget task force focuses on long-term government changes

ATLANTA — Business leaders are offering dozens of suggestions on how to streamline Georgia state government but most won’t help this year’s budget crisis and some would be political nonstarters, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said Tuesday.

Cagle announced the creation of a seven-member budget task force in January that was charged with bringing fresh ideas to Georgia’s fiscal crisis. On Tuesday, he acknowledged that the majority of the 50 ideas the group offered could not be immediately implemented.

“This is a road map for how we can gain significant savings,” Cagle said. “It’s a pathway that could take, in some cases, up to five years. But it’s the right type of mindset as we are looking to ... redefine state government. These are foundational changes that will impact us systematically for years to come.”

Cagle said some of the recommendations were “politically unviable,” including suggested changes for K-12 education and indigent and state healthcare. Other proposals include selling off government-owned real estate and consolidating state agencies.

“There are some things that are going to be very politically difficult to deal with,” said Cagle, who is seeking re-election in November. “These people are looking at this without having political lenses on.”

Some of the suggestions have already been pitched during this legislative cycle, such as moving to a paperless document system, allowing agencies to enter into multiyear lease contracts on government properties and encouraging public-private partnerships in government programs.

But with 16 days left in the current legislative session, Cagle estimated that 80 percent of the recommendations were “long-term solutions.” According to the task force, the recommendations would save more than $3 billion over the next two to five years if they are fully implemented.

The task force — which included executives from Georgia Power Co., Atlanta Gas Light, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia and Deloitte and Touche — met seven times over a period of about two months.

Georgia has already made $3 billion in cuts and is looking at a shortfall of more than $1 billion as revenues continue to decline. Budget solutions have stymied lawmakers as they juggle concerns including education, transportation and hospitals.

Legislators spent half of last month trying to figure out how to trim the state’s spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year and are faced with few options that are less than palatable to those they would affect.

Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said there are many ideas in the report that could lead to better management and more efficient government. He said the document overall was positive and that the state could generate revenue now by adopting recommendations such as broadening the sales tax base and eliminating some tax exemptions, but said there was no silver bullet to solve the immediate budget crunch.

“There are things that could be done today if they wanted to do it,” Essig said. “But there’s nothing in here that’s going to get us $2 billion tomorrow to close the budget gap.”

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