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Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 5:30am

Zero-Based Budgeting Resurfaces

In his 2013 budget proposal, Gov. Nathan Deal is using zero-based budgeting for 10 percent of state programs for the first time. It requires departments to justify every dollar they spend. Zero-based budgeting has interested some Georgia officials since the 1970s.

Zero-based budgeting boosters say it roots out government waste because it doesn’t automatically renew program funding from the previous year.

The movement’s popularity has resurged as elected officials seek to shrink government.

Jimmy Carter used zero-based budgeting when he was governor in the 1970s.

Thomas Lauth, a dean at the University of Georgia, says Carter used it for all state agencies.

He says the accounting system can give incremental savings.

“But we never got to see what that would look like because the process sort of broke down because of the voluminous nature of the data it generated," he said in an interview. "And no one could digest all of that.”

Georgia eventually abandoned the system, in part because the state was overwhelmed by the amount of data generated and was unable to make sense of the information. Lauth says Deal’s limited approach -- testing the system on 10 percent of programs -- will work better to deliver savings.

Deal says it will save about $9 million in the $19.2 billion spending plan for fiscal 2013.

Alan Essig, who heads the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, says that figure is a good illustration of the modest savings Georgians can expect each year the Governor uses the system.

“It’s another way to get more information to make better budget decisions," he said. "I don’t think it will have the dramatic impact that some folks think it will have. But it’s not necessary a bad idea – it just takes a lot of staff resources to do the job right.”

State officials say they plan to use zero-based budgeting on 10 percent of the state's programs every year Deal is in office.

Last year, a legislator proposed a law that would install zero-based budgeting on a much wider scale, but it failed to pass. Under Governor Sonny Perdue, a zero-based budgeting law did in fact pass but he vetoed it.

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