Published Sunday, January 13, 2013
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Because the federal government provides a sizable chunk of the money Georgia uses to provide services, the uncertainty about what is happening on the federal level with the budget, the deficit and the federal debt will make putting together this year’s state budget unusually hard.
“This year is going to be particularly interesting because there are so many unknown factors,” said state Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan. There’s the uncertainly of the impact of the federal health care legislation “and all the other things that go with that,” Crane said, plus “the uncertainty of their own fiscal direction.”
“We don’t know how much money they are going to provide the state,” Crane said. And federal money is a “very significant portion of the state budget,” he said. Federal money makes up about $11 billion of the total state budget of about $39 billion, Crane said.
“It would be one thing if it was 2 percent of the state budget,” he said. Instead, it’s more like 28 percent.
“If any portion of that, the federal dollars, doesn’t materialize, we have to find a way to adjust with the resources the state has,” Crane said. “Because we can’t print money to make up the gap.”
The federal government has several major decisions coming up, including the debt ceiling.
“I think the uncertainty from the side of the federal government and the administration, just the inability to project a concrete direction for our nation financially, really is leaving a lot of states” with this problem. “Everybody is in the same position,” Crane said. “What is it going to look like three months from now, six months from now?” he asked.
“There really is an uncertainty where there wasn’t before,” Crane said. “It all comes back to that same discussion — how much money will the state have to manage and then how will we manage that?”
Other than the budget, Crane expects ethics reform to be a major item this year, as well as various Second Amendment-related issues.
“Different senators are talking about both sides of the Second Amendment issue, regarding the right to keep and bear arms and what that means,” Crane said. “I think there has already been pre-filed some legislation on both sides of the issue.”
“Meaning some legislation designed specifically to protect our Second Amendment rights and then some other... that would restrict those rights,” Crane said.
“So that will certainly be an energetic conversation moving forward.”
Stronger laws regarding lobbyist gifts have been brewing for the past few years. There have been some discussions this year of including gift restrictions in the Senate’s rules. Those rules are passed every two years, usually with only minor modifications. Crane said he hasn’t seen any details yet, but “there is talk about integrating some more specifics” into the rules. “There are already ethical parameters within the Senate rules, but they are very general in nature,” Crane said.
“There is an overriding sense that people will support clear-cut guidelines,” Crane said. It’s a good possibility “you will see something, possibly in the rules and also legislatively, that ends up providing some more guidance along those lines.”
Crane said he compares ethics legislation to stripes on the roadway. “They don’t stop you from changing lanes but they are good guidelines to let you know where you are.”
“Can you imagine a road without any stripes?” Crane asked. “That’s kind of how our ethics environment looks right now.”
Those are the major issues Crane anticipates. But “you never know. There is always some surprise along the way.”
And considering the current unpredictable climate, “it’s highly likely that we will see the states, Georgia included, try to exert some influence on the federal level instead of always being on the receiving end,” Crane said.
When the country was formed, the federal government was intended to handle the things the states couldn’t do individually, according to Crane, but that purpose has long been lost on the federal government.
“They have decided their realm of influence should be everywhere,” he said. But the tables are turning, “such that we will begin to see the states continue to try to exert influence.”
It may not be a formal thing, but several states are “trying to find a way to push back some of the overreach of the federal government,” he said.
Medicaid is a good example.
“Medicaid is totally a federal program that they have pushed off onto the states,” Crane said. “We could really do some things that would probably help the Medicaid program here in Georgia... reduce the overall cost of the program and end up benefiting the people who need it most.”
But “our hands are tied because of the federal restrictions that come with every one of those federal dollars,” he said.
“We are currently unable, as it stands, to make the necessary reforms, even though we are charged with administering this program.”
This year’s Georgia General Assembly session “won’t be boring, I promise you that,” Crane said.
“It will be really challenging to get the good ideas pushed forward in the current political environment we have. I’m just going to work hard to do that” and “try to just keep informed along the way,” he said.