Cuts Upon Cuts Leave Georgia With 'Budget Fatigue'

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In Georgia, more across-the-board state budget cuts are coming. Overall budget cuts are not as big as in previous years, but some suggest there is a kind of "budget fatigue" because Georgia has continued to cut for several years.

KATHY LOHR: I'm Kathy Lohr in Atlanta, and things here are not as bad as in New York. But Georgia is struggling with at least a $1.3 billion shortfall and the new republican governor, Nathan Deal, is not downplaying the tough times.

Governor NATHAN DEAL (Republican, Georgia): Many politicians have long talked about reducing the size of government. My friends, we are doing it.

(Soundbite of applause)

LOHR: During the State of the State address, the governor said he would eliminate some 14,000 vacant jobs. He's also calling for state agencies to reduce budgets by an average of 7 percent. That means cuts to higher education, Medicaid and services for the elderly. But Deal says there's no other way.

Mr. DEAL: Our state's fortunes do not rise or fall on the size of state government.

LOHR: Georgia has been cutting its budget for years. Since 2009, the size of the budget has shrunk by 15 percent.

Alan Essig with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute says that's caused a kind of budget fatigue here.

Mr. ALAN ESSIG (Executive Director, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute): It's not specifically the impact of this one budget but it's the cumulative effect of the last three years' worth of budget cuts that is really the big issue that faces Georgia.

LOHR: This year, legislators are talking about revamping the state tax code and perhaps even bringing back a tax on groceries. Some do want to reduce the overall tax rate, but Essig says in the past lawmakers were unwilling to raise taxes.

Mr. ESSIG: What we need is a more balanced approach in Georgia. We've depended almost entirely on budget cuts to balance our budgets and we can't cut our way to prosperity.

LOHR: Georgia's prized HOPE scholarship program is also facing cuts. It provides free tuition to students who attend state universities and maintain a B average. But lottery revenues that fund it can't keep up and this year, it's estimated the program will be $300 million short.

The new GOP governor says he wants to protect this and other programs but many are waiting to see how he does that. For now, Nathan Deal has a lot of clout and support from the mostly Republican legislature.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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