Dave Williams - House GOP joins fight against school cuts

During the last gubernatorial campaign two years ago, Democrat Mark Taylor repeatedly hammered Gov. Sonny Perdue's "austerity" cuts to education.

The annual reductions in K-12 per-pupil formula spending ordered by the Republican incumbent had just peaked at nearly $333 billion during fiscal 2006 before Perdue rolled the cut back to about $170 billion as he prepared to seek a second term.

Legislative Republicans, anxious to get their leader safely re-elected, kept quiet about the cuts even as Taylor railed.

Like Taylor's campaign, however, charges that the governor was an enemy to education didn't catch fire, and Perdue trounced his Democratic challenger at the polls.

But now, legislative Democrats have some newfound allies as they continue to oppose the austerity cuts, which are down to $141.5 million in the governor's 2009 budget proposal.

House Republican leaders are vowing to put that money back when they take up the spending plan in the coming weeks.

"We will restore the austerity cuts to education," Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said last week in a side comment as he presented his tax reform plan to a House subcommittee.

Rep. Ben Harbin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Republican lawmakers had good reason to go along with the cuts during Perdue's first several years in office. The economy was tight, state tax collections were sluggish and the reductions were viewed as smart money management.

But the cuts continued, although smaller, even after times got better.

"There was an expectation that at some point, we'd stop them," said Harbin, R-Evans.

He said there's no longer a need to persist in an austerity mode when the state is sitting on record reserves of $1.5 billion.

"We have the money," he said. "If all of us work together, maybe we can fully fund education this year."

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter ascribed political motivations to the Republicans' new take on school funding.

Porter, D-Dublin, said GOP lawmakers are lining up to criticize the austerity reductions because their constituents are being hit with huge increases in their local taxes to make up for the state cuts.

"People at home are waking up to realize their property taxes are getting high because Republicans have cut $1.5 billion from the (formula) funding," he said. "We need to restore the cuts."

But Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the austerity reductions must be viewed in the context of the entire education budget.

He said the governor not only has increased overall state spending on education every year since taking office, not surprising considering the growth in the student population.

But per-pupil spending also has risen for three years in a row and would increase again next year under Perdue's 2009 proposal, Brantley said.

"It depends on your measuring stick," he said. "Many people measure education based on dollars you spend. The governor is more interested in achievement and progress."

Toward that end, Brantley cited Perdue's emphasis on targeting education spending to specific needs. He said Georgia's high-school dropout rate declined by 10 percent after the governor convinced the General Assembly to set aside funds to hire graduation coaches to identify and work with at-risk students.

But Porter said school districts would rather have their state funding go directly to the classroom, which is what the per-pupil formula does, rather than be subjected to targeted programs that dictate how they must spend their money.

"When they've added money to these other programs, it's not the instructional money Georgia students need," he said.

With Perdue well into his second term, he has become a more convenient target for his fellow Republicans in the legislature.

While he doesn't have to face Georgia voters again, GOP majorities in the House and Senate will be on the line this fall.

But Porter suggests it's too late for Republican lawmakers to score political points by jumping onto the anti-austerity cuts bandwagon.

"They've been doing it for going on six years," he said. "We've been talking about it for five years."

But Harbin said Republicans' determination to get rid of the austerity cuts isn't about politics.

"We're going to see if we can fund it, not because the Democrats are screaming but because our children deserve it," he said.