Politics & Government

Perdue: Homeowners grant "virtually fiscally impossible"

ATLANTA - Funding to give homeowners a break on their property taxes became "virtually fiscally impossible" as the state's revenue situation deteriorated last year, Gov. Sonny Perdue told legislators this afternoon, during the first day of House and Senate budget hearings.

The homestead exemption grants have been a top priority for legislators looking to tinker with the budget, since local governments have already figured on getting refunds from the state to provide the break to property tax payers.

Without the $428 million it would take the state to make good on that promise, local governments would either have to raise taxes or cut spending in budgets that they have already passed.

For example: The city of Warner Robins alone will have a $680,000 hole in its budget without the state funding, Mayor Donald Walker said this week.

Perdue said he wanted to include the money in his budget, but, "ladies and gentlemen, I literally could not find it." Perdue said his office "scraped up" money from a number of state reserve accounts, taking some down near the bottom, just to build a budget without the homestead grants.

Perdue promised legislators that he's not hiding money from them, and said that if they can find funding for the homestead exemption program, "I'll rejoice with you."

As the state's budget crisis has deepened - Perdue has cut $2.2 billion from the current year's budget to balance it - legislators, including those who represent the midstate, have remained hopeful that the homestead exemption grants could be saved.

Hopeful, if not particularly confident.

But at least one powerful member of the House of Representatives remains optimistic. Rules Committee Chairman Earl Earhart said last week that there are more cuts to be made than the governor has recommended which could free up money for the homestead grants.

Earhart noted that the constituency of homeowners is larger than just about any other constituency that might want to protect something in the state budget.

"If we need $450 million," he said, "there's so many places we can go."

It remains to be seen what the rest of the state legislature - and the governor, who must sign off on a final budget - will agree to. Budget committee hearings continue this afternoon, tomorrow and Friday. The full House and Senate go back into session next week.