A chisel is the right tool for a future-focused leader

August 13, 2019 7:30 am

Parents, teachers and students have an interest in knowing what the state board of education is up to when they gather, which was not possible after officials closed its September meeting. Getty images.

You might remember this campaign commercial from last year. A small explosion detonates in a field behind then-gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp as he declares: “I’m so conservative, I blow up government spending.”

Last week Gov. Kemp moved closer to fulfilling that pledge. His Office of Planning and Budget ordered most department heads to cut 4% from the current $27.5 billion budget. OPB also told state agencies to reduce expenses by 6% for next year’s budget submissions, both due Sept. 6.

We’ve seen cuts before during the recession that started in 2007 and lingered for years after. In 2010, as the recession drained revenues, Georgia made drastic cuts that erased $1 billion a year from public education funding. From 2007 to 2010, state revenues declined by more than 19% and Georgia was in a tailspin. Georgia’s unemployment rate peaked at more than 10% the first half of 2011 before the crisis eased slightly late in the year.

Today, Georgia’s revenues are up — rising 3.1% in July compared to last year. The state’s economy is strong, unemployment is under 4% and its finances are healthy. The OPB even references some of those positive trends in the letter directing department heads to pare back.

The governor’s gutting of his own budget — he just signed the current spending bill into law in May, and it took effect July 1 — is more about blowing things up than building the future. It may validate a statement he made in a TV commercial, but it could once again undermine an important promise Kemp made to our state’s teachers.

As GOP nominee for governor, Kemp announced he would give Georgia’s teachers a permanent $5,000 pay raise at a cost of roughly $600 million a year. After he took office in January, the $5,000 pay raise shrank to $3,000, characterized as a down payment on the full increase. (Read updated news in the Georgia Recorder.) This latest call for cuts needlessly puts  the full teachers’ pay raises in play.

What has been paid in full? Spanking new and — as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports — controversial voting machines just secured with a $107 million contract.

Let’s consider two things. First, does the governor think the good times are over for now? Maybe. Just before the existing budget took effect on July 1, Kemp’s administration skipped a $235 million payment to Georgia’s insurance plan for hundreds of thousands of state workers. The move helped the state wind down last year’s budget in the black after actual revenues fell short of projected revenues for a few months.

Second, if we are entering a phase of belt-tightening, is a TNT-powered blowup of the entire state budget a better plan than a strategic scaling back of spending? My experience says it’s not.

My last two career stops were focused on budgeting. I joined the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta in communications in 2008 as the foreclosure crisis began in earnest. There, knowledgeable counselors helped homeowners sort out their best steps to steadily regaining control of their finances. The approach was to make deep but strategic cuts — get rid of cable, don’t forgo your medications.

More recently, I worked at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute during the era of Gov. Nathan Deal, who took office in 2011 and inherited a sorely underfunded state government that struggled to protect children, educate our next generation and provide health care to rural Georgians suffering from life-threatening diseases. Deal steadily restored education funding and built the state’s rainy-day fund back from perilous levels. He was not without flaws, but our previous governor understood that a chisel is more powerful than an explosive if you plan to lead your state to become a better one.

Kemp says his priority is to keep his teacher pay promise. But during the depths of the economic downturn a decade ago, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue — who came in on a wave of support from teachers — ordered billions of dollars in budget cuts that hurt education and other services essential for the state to grow toward the future.

Is Kemp’s never-mind-the-shrapnel approach any better — especially since it’s coming while state coffers are at healthy levels? At this writing, it just seems like a lack of vision.

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John McCosh
John McCosh

John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. For more than a decade at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCosh investigated state and local government officials and operations. He also tracked regional growth and development with a focus on metro Atlanta’s population-related problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution and water quality. He first learned the power of public records to unlock information when he was a commercial real estate reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.