Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Don't Spend Surplus, Barnes Says GOP Says Leftover Funds Should Go Back to Taxpayers

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Don't Spend Surplus, Barnes Says GOP Says Leftover Funds Should Go Back to Taxpayers

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- The money that Gov. Roy Barnes wants to keep "in the bank," in case the economy turns sour, should go to Georgia taxpayers instead, Republican legislators said yesterday.

Barnes' $14.4 billion budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is up from the $13.9 billion the state would spend this year if lawmakers approve the governor's midyear budget plan.

In his annual budget address to the General Assembly yesterday, Barnes said Georgia already is a "national pacesetter" when it comes to cutting taxes.

He cited legislation enacted in recent years that exempted groceries from sales taxes, raised the standard deduction for taxpayers over 65 and cut $1 billion from the unemployment tax.

But he warned lawmakers that dipping into the state surplus beyond the $166 million property tax cut he's recommending, the second installment in an eight-year plan to raise Georgia's homestead exemption to $50,000, could threaten the future.

"If we spend everything that we have now, when times are good, we'll be back here in a special session cutting the budget when a recession hits," Barnes told a joint session of the House and Senate during a 50-minute speech. "That's what happened in 1991. I don't want that to happen again on my watch."

Although the governor will present his education reform plan to lawmakers in a separate address tomorrow, six pages of yesterday's 15-page budget message were taken up with various education initiatives. The 2001 budget would include a net increase of $133 million for education, not including funds to accommodate growth in student enrollment or pay raises.

But the sharpest criticism from Republican leaders came over taxes.

"What stands out the most in the budget is how little of it is going back to the taxpayers," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "This is taxpayer money. If they want to spend it on health care and education, they can. But the government can't spend money better than families."

Johnson cited a $300,000 initiative to create an Office of Children's Advocate as an example of unnecessary spending. The office would investigate and intervene in child abuse and fatality cases.

"Why not just fix the [Department of Human Resources]?" Johnson asked. "They've been running this program. . . . Why create a watchdog to watch the watchdog? That's why this growth [in spending] seems to be uncontrolled."

House Speaker Thomas Murphy, D-Bremen, said he supports Barnes' goal of building up the surplus rather than using the vast majority of it for tax cuts, as Republicans are urging.

"We need to increase our surplus to where we can be sure that we don't have any more '74s and '91s [years when recessions caused the state to run deficits]," he said. "I've been through them. …

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