ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers capped a hiatus week at the state Capitol by pulling back on some of Gov. Brian Kemp’s ordered budget cuts, which have dominated talks so far in the 2020 legislative session.
The governor’s proposed cuts – rounding out to $557 million through the 2021 fiscal year – inspired the General Assembly to set aside bill-wrangling for 10 days and focus almost exclusively on the budget.
Lawmakers held a fresh round of hearings to dive deeper into the budget. Dozens of state agency heads explained to members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees how they’ll manage the cuts.
Changes to the governor’s budget began Thursday, when members of the House Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee voted to restore funding for nearly half of 13 vacant food-safety inspector positions slated to remain unfilled because of the cuts.
The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Rep. Penny Houston, previously had said she felt wary of shortchanging food inspectors amid a proliferation of Dollar General stores opening in Georgia that now sell prepared food – and thus ought to face more scrutiny.
“It’s not really a glamorous thing when you go to a convenience store and you see rats everywhere,” said Houston, R-Nashville. “I mean, it’s tough.”
More budget tweaks likely ahead could set up head-butting between lawmakers and Kemp, who has veto power over spending items that the legislature passes.
The House version of the amended $27.4-billion budget for the current fiscal year is headed for a floor vote Wednesday that will likely see more cuts rolled back, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn.
“You’ll probably see more restorations,” England said, declining to elaborate further Thursday. “That’s the way this process is supposed to work.”
With the cuts, Kemp aims to stave off a budget shortfall amid sluggish tax revenue collections while leaving wiggle room to give public school teachers a $2,000 raise.
Revenues picked up last month but still lag far behind the roughly $800 million boost officials originally projected.
Kemp’s budget director, Kelly Farr, told lawmakers Wednesday the agency belt-tightening was carefully calibrated to minimize impacts on everyday Georgians. He highlighted a total of $140 million in savings achieved by leaving vacant staff positions unfilled, plus millions more by eliminating landline phones and travel.
Many agencies are poised to have their budgets stay largely the same by trimming proposed increases in spending last year rather than cuts to existing services, Farr said.
“We tried to be very diligent about things that we consider to be public-facing [and] service-impacting,” Farr said. “This was not done haphazardly.”
But some lawmakers argued that kind of budget-crafting could dampen the rebuilding process those agencies have undergone since the 2008 economic recession, which spurred deep cuts throughout state government.
“We’ve tried to make sure over the last couple of years that we paid attention to those agencies that took extraordinarily harsh, harsh cuts over the recession,” said Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin. “All of a sudden we come back down and there’s a drastic change.”
Concerns have continued to mount from social workers, doctors and others worried the proposed cuts would hit Georgia’s most vulnerable populations the hardest.
State mental health services face around $80 million in cuts through June 2021 that would largely affect programs meant to prevent crisis situations that could land someone in jail or a psychiatric ward.
Those cuts have unsettled many lawmakers and mental health advocates who support pumping more money into services for people with mental and physical disabilities, rather than keeping the budget flat.
“There are ways we can cut back,” said Pauline Shaw, executive director for the nonprofit special-needs group Effingham County Navigator Team. “But it should not come on the backs of people who are the most vulnerable.”
Critics have also homed in on cuts that could affect some law enforcement and criminal justice reform initiatives like alternative sentencing programs, public defenders and a huge backlog of forensic lab tests needed for rape investigations.
Elsewhere in the budget, Kemp has taken especially fierce heat for proposed cuts to county health boards and physician training programs in rural areas – a key voter base for the governor and many lawmakers from both parties.
“We do not want to see a greater burden placed on our rural hospitals because of budget cuts,” said Damien Scott, CEO of Emanuel Medical Center in Swainsboro. “When you’re barely making ends meet, even $15,000 to $20,000 can be significant.”
Rep. Clay Pirkle agreed, noting many underserved health boards in rural counties might be in a serious bind without full state funding.
“If we are cutting in an area, the unintended consequence is we are cramming down to the local level,” said Pirkle, R-Ashburn. “And a lot of them can’t afford it.”
Some officials pointed out the full extent of the cuts can be deceptive since state funds are often paired with federal dollars.
For instance, the state medical director for the Georgia Poison Center, Robert Geller, said an estimated $50,000 cut to his office could swell to more than $150,000 with the loss of matching federal funds.
Rep. Butch Parrish, who chairs the House Health Appropriations Subcommittee, said he wants to steer clear of small cuts that could lead to inadvertently larger costs down the road.
“Let’s continue to talk about the consequences of some of these cuts,” Parrish, R-Swainsboro, said at a hearing Wednesday. “And maybe if we look at it in a different light, we can come up with a better solution that we can all be happy about.”
Story By Beau Evans, Staff Writer - Capitol Beat News Service