Bookman: State budget crisis is product of lawmakers’ blind ideology

Our columnist says the 2018 income tax rate cut House Speaker David Ralston championed is now causing a state revenue shortfall and sapping resources for law enforcement, mental health treatment and other essential services. Despite this year's budget crunch, the Blue Ridge Republican is among those pushing for another income tax cut this year. Maggie Lee/Georgia Recorder

Wishful thinking is a dangerous thing, as Georgia’s Republican leadership can attest. The budgetary crisis that has now forced the temporary shutdown of the 2020 legislative session is entirely the product of their own bumbling incompetence and their addiction to blind ideology.

Because really, there’s no reason that any of this should be happening.

Take, for example, the state crime lab. The backlog of cases awaiting investigation is now 46,000, up from 36,000 just four months ago. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the lab gets 200 rape kits a month from investigators and prosecutors eager to make a case, but at current staffing levels – 18 lab science positions are vacant – it can only process 110 a month.

That’s a terrible state of affairs. Rapists who might be caught and stopped are potentially going free. People who might be exonerated are sitting in jail, awaiting evidence that would clear them. In a prosperous state such as Georgia, we should be adding resources to provide what is a basic and essential public safety service.

Instead, we’re being told to do the opposite. Citing economic necessity, the budget proposal submitted by Gov. Brian Kemp to the General Assembly calls for filling only nine of those 18 open positions; the remaining nine would be permanently eliminated. Dress it up however they wish, the problem is going to get worse not better.

Or take the state’s already insufficient mental health system. Georgia has long spent less money on mental health programs per capita than all but a handful of states, with the result that Georgia families trying to help loved ones in distress often have nowhere to turn. In testimony this month, legislators were warned that the millions in dollars of cuts proposed by Kemp to our already rickety mental-health system would take a substantial toll in the form of additional suicides, untreated addictions, homelessness and other issues. County public-health departments would also take a significant hit.

In other words, this is the type and scale of budget cutting that might be required in a deep economic downturn, when revenues were plummeting and state officials had no other choice. But we are not in a deep economic downturn; the state jobless rate is 3.2%, and we are still enjoying an economic upswing that began in 2009 and is now the longest in American history.

Put another way, this is not a budget crisis produced by events that were largely out of our leaders’ control. It is a crisis that they produced, and that they clearly don’t know how to handle without doing serious damage.

The roots of this crisis go back to at least 2018, when Georgia’s Republican leadership decided they needed to produce a $550 million tax cut to give them a political talking point in time the upcoming election season. By cutting the state’s top income-tax rate from 6% to 5.75%, they produced a tax bill that saved lower-income and middle-income Georgians almost nothing, but gave tax savings worth thousands and tens of thousands to Georgia companies and individuals who were already doing very well.

At the time they approved that tax cut, budget experts were warning Georgia’s leadership that it was dangerous policy-making, that the revenue growth that they needed to sustain the current level of expenditures might not materialize. The conservative approach – conservative in the old-fashioned sense of that word – would be forego the tax cut.

But that’s not what they wanted to hear. In a heedless rush to deliver a tax cut to the people already doing very well, they endangered the delivery of basic government services to Georgians who in most cases have nowhere else to turn. And while the obvious, logical and practical way out of this mess would be to undo that 2018 tax cut, that’s not even in the realm of possibility.