By: Charlie Spalding
In August of this year, due to the continued stagnation of Georgia’s economy, perpetually sluggish state tax revenue, and forecasts calling
for only marginal economic growth in the next fiscal year, Governor Nathan Deal called for an additional 3% reduction in the budgets of most state agencies, hoping to save the state nearly $550 million. Many expressed concerns about the fate of the state’s Department of Community Health and the state’s institutions for higher learning. However, there was little outcry over what such indiscriminate cuts may do to programs administered by the Secretary of State until late September, when Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced the drastic curtailment of operational hours and significant personnel layoffs for the Georgia Archives.
The Georgia Archives serve an integral function in the efficient operation of the state government by contextualizing current events for state agencies and legislators, maintaining property records, and providing proper record management. In addition, the state archives play an important role in academia, historical preservation, and genealogy projects. The plan to limit citizen access to the archives to an appointment-only basis would have made Georgia the only state in the country without regular archive access. Furthermore, the proposed cuts would have jeopardized the integrity of the state government by endangering the preservation of historical records, which can often be of utmost importance when resolving current disputes or analyzing the effects of past policies.
Opposition to the plan was so swift and pointed that Governor Deal was obliged to promise a restoration of funds for the operation of the archives. In so doing, the governor also averted a statewide uproar among historians, genealogists, and concerned citizens while saving the state of Georgia from what would surely have been a national embarrassment. However, the lesson to be learned from the budget battle of the Georgia Archives is not simply to avoid stepping on the feet of historians, but that indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts, even if they are only a mere 3%, are much more problematic in practice than in theory.
As Brian Kemp’s explanation for restricting archives access suggests, there was simply no other area to possibly cut from the department’s budget. Funding must be maintained in the elections division to ensure Georgia’s compliance with federal regulations. Deeper cuts to the licensing division would result in longer wait times for professional certifications, which are already being processed at a rate five times slower than previous years. Furthermore, while the demands of new Dodd-Frank regulations have resulted in a significant workload increase for the securities division, the budget for the division has been cut by more than half in the past four years. Clearly, the only place left to look for a reduction was in the area of archival services, where a small 3% cut to the department’s overall budget took a grossly disproportionate effect, resulting in Kemp’s drastic initial proposals to curtail public access.
Many logical alternatives to defunding the Georgia Archives exist in the state’s overall budget, yet the Secretary of State’s office, a department that actually brings in significant revenue for the state, was forced to cut its budgets by the same proportion as programs and agencies that continue to fall embarrassingly short of expectations. The state’s budget, similar to any other massive budget with a myriad of facets, should be subject to thorough scrutiny to find sensible and less harmful savings as opposed to a shortsighted declaration requiring an indiscriminate 3% cut from all agencies.
Despite the logical shortfalls of such an approach to budget balancing, the federal government is set to adopt such a method in mere months as a result of the “Fiscal Cliff.” The sequestration process, as outlined by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and triggered by the failure of the so called “supercommittee” on deficit reduction, stands ready to indiscriminately slash federal spending by $1.2 trillion in the next decade, a ratio much more devastating in terms of the overall budget than Governor Deal’s 3% mandate. The sequestration cuts, much like the ones proposed by Governor Deal, are applied equally to all eligible programs and are split equally between defense and non-defense spending. While some programs are exempt from sequestration, such as Medicare, many others stand to suffer significant funding restrictions in the years ahead, including the Centers for Disease Control, National Endowment for the Arts, and public broadcasting.
The nature of the cuts mandated by the federal sequestration process is that of a deterrent and should be viewed as a consequence so severe that even the most polarized Congress would be encouraged to work in a bipartisan way to achieve compromise. In Georgia, however, it appears as though such cuts have been embraced as an efficient means of balancing the budget, despite the clear evidence that these indiscriminate cuts have the potential for significant negative repercussions. As the fiscal cliff becomes more imminent it is likely that, at best, a major bipartisan compromise is struck or, at the very least, a continuing resolution is issued, lest the controversies of Morrow, Georgia manifest themselves on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 7th street in Washington, D.C.