COVID-19’s impact on Georgia’s economy is also impacting tax revenues, and severe cuts to the state’s budget may become a reality.
The House of Representatives had already approved its version of the budget and sent it over to the Senate when the legislative session was suspended because of COVID-19.
The Georgia General Assembly session will resume June 11, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has begun holding hearings to figure out how to cut up to 14 percent off the state’s budget.
Cuts discussed include severe funding reductions for accountability courts, services provided through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, and teacher furloughs or pay cuts – including possibly shortening the school year for pre-K.
Various state departments have provided the appropriations committee with their recommendations for how to cut their budgets.
But as of now, everything is preliminary, according to Evan Horton, incoming superintendent of the Coweta County School System.
“You don’t know exactly what you’re going to be faced with until the legislature is able to get back in session and pass a budget,” Horton said.
When the session resumes June 11, budget writers will have the May revenue numbers, which will be the latest and most up-to-date information, according to Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, who serves on the General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
“That will give us what we need to look at the budget as a whole and to see what we have to do to balance the budget,” Smith said.
The legislature is constitutionally required to do just one thing each year – pass a balanced budget. And it has to be done before July 1.
The budget is based on Gov. Brian Kemp’s revenue estimate, which is going to be different than it was in January.
“He’s going to have to set the revenue estimate as a guideline for what we have to cut,” Smith said. “Right now, the Senate is gathering all the information it can from the agencies: Where would you do your cuts? Why would you do it this way?”
Once the Senate gets the latest numbers and crafts its version of the budget, it will go back to the House. Typically, the budget will end up in a conference committee, made up of representatives and senators, who will reconcile the differences in the House and Senate versions.
Smith expects the same this year, though it’s possible the House may agree to the Senate’s version.
Because it’s unknown how long the economic impact from COVID-19 may last or how deep it will be, Smith said she wouldn’t be surprised if the legislature ends up going into special session later in the year to adjust the budget.
“Nobody wants to see deep cuts,” she said.
Smith’s subcommittee includes a large number of state agencies, and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, many of those agencies took cuts of over 40 percent.
Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Peachtree City, was named to the House Appropriations Committee this session.
“There is no doubt we will be faced with some difficult decisions in preparing the 2021 budget,” Bonner said. “The challenge is finding the balance between what is critical to the state as a whole and what is needed throughout individual communities.”
The committees and the House Budget Office have been working during the break with state departments and agencies to determine the potential impact of every cut and reduction, according to Bonner.
“Gov. Kemp has set the tone for a lean and efficient state government that reduces the burden to taxpayers and encourages economic growth,” Bonner said. “I’m confident the legislature can propose a budget that meets that goal and funds the necessary functions of government.”
Rep. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg, estimated cuts will be more painful than those during the recession. “It is situations like these that I have been warning my fellow legislators about and exactly why I am a sponsor of House Bill 4,” he said.
Under HB 4, which was filed in early 2019 and has yet to receive a committee hearing, the state’s budget would be voted on by department, instead of as one budget.
“There has never been a more important time to review every single department individually and make targeted specific cuts where we can, while protecting the funding of vital programs,” Singleton said.
“A flat, 14 percent cut across the board is irresponsible,” Singleton said.
He added that he will vote against any version of the budget that cuts pay for teachers or first responders without at least a matching reduction in legislative salaries.
House Minority Leader Rep. Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, said legislators should be turning over every stone to avoid having to make cuts into the bone.
“Layoffs, furloughs and cuts to essential services are the wrong perception for the uncertain days that lay ahead as we navigate through COVID-19 and its aftermath,” he said.
School system staff have been working on the 2021 budget and will begin meeting with school board members Tuesday, Horton said.
It’s the normal time for budget talks – but normally the state budget is already finalized by now. Horton said the school system has been told to prepare for a 14 percent cut to the state allocation, which would be over $16 million for Coweta.
Though teacher furloughs and pay cuts have been discussed in the Senate committee, those are not decisions that the state will make.
“Local systems decide how to implement state cuts, based on their individual situations,” Horton said.
For now, “we’re in a wait and see mode. We’ll take the information we’re given from the state – we’ll study it, analyze it and see what we need to do,” he said. “Right now, we just don’t know. Just because something is talked about, doesn’t mean it is going to happen.”