There's a serious crisis of leadership in Georgia right now, and it will affect you directly, in ways both big and small.
Within a few days -- perhaps in the time between my writing this and it being printed -- the state legislature will possibly terminate and completely de-fund the Georgia Council for the Arts. "Zero it out," in legislative parlance.
This would leave Georgia as the only state in the union without an arts agency. This will no doubt be a point of pride for some ideologues, but for the rest of us who live in the real world it's a staggering blow.
As is so often the case with these things, there's a compounding effect. Without a state arts agency -- i.e., a body with the mission to provide arts access for all citizens -- a state is ineligible for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. For Georgia, that's about a million bucks a year. Same goes for South Grants, to the tune of about $100,000 a year.
It's only the arts, you say. Who cares? It's just the arts. So what?
I'll spare you the lecture about how the arts enrich society and quality of life and create smarter, more well-rounded citizens who are less likely to go to jail and more likely to be productive taxpayers and responsible parents. All that's certainly true, but these days that and two bucks gets you a cup of coffee, a small one at that.
Instead I'll go to a more basic level: If this cut goes through, people you know will lose jobs. Maybe you will lose your job.
And when jobs go away, guess what else goes away? Yep, tax revenue! So the cycle is doomed to continue its downward spiral, the very definition of the phrase "penny wise and pound foolish." But that's your legislature in a nutshell.
If you're of a mind that you don't want any tax money to ever go to the arts -- and I'll no doubt be getting some e-mails along those lines, probably being typed as you read this -- let me lay it out in the simplest possible terms:
The arts create jobs, and therefore economic growth. Plus, jobs in the arts don't hurt the environment, they cannot be outsourced to foreign nations, and they require very little start-up or capital cost compared to other sectors. (Tried to build a factory lately? How about a hotel? A bridge?)
Like the arts, education apparently is also not very important to the majority in the state legislature. The University System of Georgia will likely suffer a devastating $300 million in cuts.
Again, people you know will lose jobs, others will find themselves suddenly out of a degree program that they and the taxpayers have already invested in, and Georgia will continue its free-fall down the national list in all phases of education.
The only bright spot is we'll eventually stop falling -- because we'll be at the bottom!
For every job in the arts or in education that is lost because of short-sighted, irresponsible actions by the state legislature, you will pay far more in future police costs, jail costs, unemployment benefit costs, Medicaid costs, and plain old economic malaise than you ever would have paid if we just kept those jobs and programs intact.
And then there's health care. Can't forget health care. Last but not least, the governor and his majority in the legislature want to put a new tax on hospitals. Because, you know, hospitals are doing so well financially and all.
(Speaking of health care, here's how screwed up our state leadership is: A leading candidate for governor, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, will fight the "federal takeover of health care" by refusing to set up a state insurance exchange for high-risk residents. But according to new federal law, in such a case the feds will just set up their own exchange. Thus through his own actions Oxendine is guaranteeing a "federal takeover of health care!" This genius is very likely your next governor.)
So to recap: Arts, education and health care are all taking huge budget hits and various insults added to injury. That's OK, because everyone has to sacrifice during these hard times, right?
The legislature does all this slashing and burning in the name of the recession, because allegedly there isn't enough tax money being collected to fund everything.
But it's a lie.
The money is there, it's just that your elected officials don't want it used for the arts, and they don't want it used for public education, and they don't want it used to help already insolvent hospitals.
Senior citizens, a very powerful voting group, will likely get a huge tax cut. How big a tax cut? Well, about the same amount of money that state universities are being asked to slash from their budgets to educate young people.
But that's not all. During this recessionary time when tax receipts are at crucial lows, the legislature also wants to cut property taxes.
Let me say that again so it will sink in: The state is bankrupt, but state property taxes will be cut.
Look, I don't like paying property taxes any more than you do. But we have no business cutting taxes at this time. Too much is at stake. Things are getting too serious.
And yes, education and the arts and health care are serious things.
As for the Georgia legislature, it's really funny how elected officials who claim to be so conservative about everything can end up doing such radical things, with such radical results.
Too bad there's not some kind of mechanism for addressing this, some type of periodic, regular opportunity to change leaders, maybe by making a choice or casting a vote of some kind..... oh, well, a man can dream, eh?