Highlights From the First Day of Budget Hearings

The House and Senate appropriation Committees began several days of joint hearings on Tuesday, as they begin to consider both the amended FY 2016 budget and the budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins on July 1st. For the most part, these hearings are pretty dry, with the agency head reviewing the information presented in the budget books, and perhaps subtly indicating the items in the agency’s budget for which they would prefer to have the highest funding priority.

The budget hearings also provide an opportunity for lawmakers to ask questions and attempt to get answers from the department heads in public. Such was the case with Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who had originally planned to send a representative in his place, but ended up making a personal appearance.

And there was Senator Vincent Fort, ready to have some questions answered about what has become known as the Peach Breach, the release of personally identifiable information on all registered voters to a dozen news outlets and political party organizations. Fort had a question about the need to store social security and drivers license numbers after voter eligibility was verified, whether new protocols had been put in place that would prevent a similar data release, and whether the one year of credit monitoring offered to voters was sufficient.

Kemp assured the senator that after the release of data was discovered, the department was able to secure the data such that it was not released to the public.

I’m very confident that that information never reached the public domain. You could even make the case that you didn’t even need to do the credit monitoring for a year, and then full restoration services if somebody’s identity is stolen. But, I felt like from our position, to give the voters the peace of mind, that was the best thing to do.

We got a great deal on that –1.2 million dollars– for the credit monitoring and restoration services for everybody that was on that list. And I think that also that will help us with our legal costs. We are involved in a lawsuit regarding this, and that’s some of the things they were asking for in the lawsuit, so I think there’s a case to be made that the lawsuit could be dropped because we’re doing exactly what the folks that are suing us wanted us to do.

Kemp defended the need to keep the personally identifiable information on file due to the changing nature of the voter registration list, and explained that changes had been made to policies that will prevent a similar data leak from happening again. The updated policies were listed in the report on the indicent released in December.

There were two other notable moments during the day’s hearing. State School Superintendent Richard Woods was first up after Governor Deal’s overview of he budget, largely because K-12 education gets 38% of the revenue the state will raise next fiscal year. After using much of his time in front of the committee to present a mini “State of K-12 Schooling” address, including the difficulties of retaining teachers and the need to reduce the number of tests given to students, Woods was ready for questions.

The first question came from House Speaker Pro-Tem Jan Jones of Milton, who quizzed Woods over whether the teacher turnover rate reported in the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Survey early in January was greater than in prior years. Then Rep. Penny Houston of Nashville asked woods how many tests were required under federal law and how many were mandated by the legislature. Woods didn’t have good answers for either question.

The other presentation of note was from Georgia DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, who spent his time explaining changes in his budget due to the additional funding received as a result of 2015’s House Bill 170. McMurry, as you many remember, took over the DOT a year ago today, and had to do last year’s DOT budget presentation on his first day on the job after Keith Golden announced his retirement. Unlike in previous years, McMurry’s presentation was well received by the appropriations committees, indicating a much better relationship between the General Assembly and the DOT than in the past.

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