Democrats could help with money from Washington
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia officials working to whack $2 billion in spending from the state’s recession ravaged state budget are drooling over a federal stimulus plan loaded with cash.
Working closely with President-elect Barack Obama, Democrats in the U.S. House this week unveiled an $825 billion plan that would pump money into Medicaid, school districts and road projects.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, said he isn’t counting on any federal funds to balance Georgia’s budget. The package’s fate on Capitol Hill is far from certain. Still, state officials are keeping a close eye on Washington, just in case.
While conservative Republicans nationally and in Georgia have expressed ambivalence about the costly stimulus plan, Democrats are by and large on board. And after years out in the cold, it could fall to state’s out-of-power Democrats to flex their political muscle in Washington with the incoming Obama administration.
At the state Capitol, Democrats say it’s a nice change of pace in a Legislature dominated by Republicans since 2004.
“Several of my more pragmatic Republican colleagues have approached me,” state Sen. Doug Stoner, an early Obama backer from Smyrna said. “There is definitely a sense that we’ll be more in demand.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a veteran Democratic lawmaker from Columbus, had a 45-minute meeting on Monday with Perdue to talk about ways Smyre could help with the Obama administration. As president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Smyre has ties to the Obama transition team.
“Calvin obviously has connections into some of the personalities in the transition team and the new administration and I believe he’s sincere in using those relationships for the benefit of Georgia,” Perdue said.
Smyre said he’s determined to see that Georgia gets its due from any stimulus package that moves in Washington.
“My message is, let’s not miss this opportunity,” Smyre said. “This would close some of the holes we have in our budget.”
In Washington, Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott echoed that thought.
“I’ll be doing everything we can to make sure Georgia gets its fair share of this stimulus package,” Scott said.
A Perdue aide acknowledged the state’s Democrats will be helpful but insisted the governor still has some power of his own.
“It overstates it to say that the new administration won’t take Georgia’s phone call because we have a Republican governor,” Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said.
Some Republicans were openly skeptical of the Democrats’ claims of newfound clout.
“None of these Democratic back benchers has actually met with the president-elect and a lot of them backed the other candidates,” said Perdue’s former communications director Dan McLagan, a GOP consultant.
Smyre was an early supporter of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. In recent weeks, however, he’s had several meetings with officials from the Obama transition team.
He said he’s determined to help alleviate the pain of Georgia’s budget cuts.
Perdue’s budget plan avoided steep cuts to Medicaid, the health program for the poor, by proposing a new fee on hospitals and health insurance plans. Conservative Republicans have pledged to fight the fee. An infusion of federal cash for Medicaid could help state lawmakers avoid a bruising political brawl.
In 2003, during another economic downturn, the state’s Medicaid program was rescued by about $500 million in federal cash for Medicaid.
Georgia school districts likewise have been hit hard by years of cuts to the state’s funding formula that pays for day-to-day operating expenses. Those cuts have only intensified as the state’s budget woes have worsened. The Democrats plan would funnel $100 billion to districts around the country.
And road and other infrastructure projects could get a boost from billions of dollars in proposed federal road money. That would be a huge boost for Georgia, with its backlog of road projects.
“It doesn’t matter what party you’re in if you’re sitting in traffic,” state Rep. Vance Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said. “We’ll take the help where it comes from.”
Republican state Sen. Jack Hill, chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee, said the federal stimulus plan would be a lifesaver in this tough budget year. But — Washington being Washington — he said he’ll start counting on that money only after it arrives in state coffers.
“Would it help? Yes. Will it happen?” he shrugged.
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