Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Ga. can't afford health care for its people, but tax cuts? Sure!

Time and again, we’ve heard the same excuse: Medicaid cannot be expanded in Georgia, extending much-needed health insurance to some 400,000 of our fellow citizens, because the state budget is under too much strain.

Sure, expanding Medicaid would save lives and improve the quality of life for many others, many of them lower-income working people whose jobs don’t include health coverage. Sure, it would bring billions of new federal dollars into the state and help rescue a health-care delivery system that is now collapsing in much of rural Georgia. Sure, it would create thousands of jobs, and sure, federal tax money would no longer be flowing out of Georgia to subsidize Medicaid coverage for people in other states.

All of that might be true, but supposedly we don’t have the money to pay even the state’s relatively minor share of the cost of expansion.

Yet on Monday, a supermajority of the state Senate voted to slash the state income tax by an amount roughly equivalent to that needed to fund Medicaid expansion. I think that tells you a lot about the priorities of those elected to lead us:

We don’t have enough money to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of our own people; we do have enough money to finance a tax cut that will largely benefit wealthier Georgians.

Under the terms of Senate Resolution 756, the top state income tax would automatically fall by a tenth of a percentage point by 2018 as long as the economy stays relatively strong. It would be cut by another tenth of a point by 2020, again if the economy stays relatively strong. And because the tax cuts are being implemented automatically, through a proposed amendment to the state constitution, state legislators in 2018 and 2020 won’t be able to stop them.

It gets worse: Because of a separate constitutional amendment that passed quietly in 2014, state legislators would also be forbidden to raise the income tax should future economic conditions require it. Once the rate is lowered, it would be almost impossible to raise it back to its previous level.

It’s important that voters and politicians alike understand what is going on here. Republican legislators have long wanted to gut the state’s income tax, under the belief that doing so would somehow set off an economic boom in a state that already has one of the lowest tax burdens in the country. The fact that states such as Kansas and Louisiana have recently run that experiment, with disastrous results, hasn’t altered their mindset.

By cutting the income tax and shifting the revenue burden to the sales tax, they would also shift the burden of financing government away from the wealthy and onto the already struggling middle and working classes. That is utterly undeniable and politically risky. So rather than do it all at once, when its full implications can be understood and discussed, they are attempting to do it piecemeal.

SR 756 must now go to the House, where it must receive a two-thirds vote to pass. If that happens, it will appear on the ballot in November. Its proponents are counting on voters not comprehending its real impact, and based on what we’re seeing in the larger political sphere these days, that expectation is probably valid.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.