Legislature Wrapup: Budget Cut, Could Have Been Worse

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The Georgia General Assembly gaveled Sine Die late Friday night, ending an unusual 2020 meeting of the legislature.  It was a session interrupted by a pandemic, one that gave legislators an up close and personal look at both peaceful protests and civil unrest, and sent budget writers back to the drawing board to start over on budget plans.

The headline from the budget remains one of large cuts. As is custom, most of those headlines focus on the cuts to education, as education spending consumes more than half the revenues generated from state taxation. 

Lawmakers are not only constrained by a mandated balanced budget, but various formulas that restrict spending based on prior year’s revenues.  They’re also not allowed to borrow funds for operating expenses. Even if they were to consider tax hikes, the state’s income tax is constitutionally capped at six percent.

Under these constraints, budget writers were able to put together a spending plan that does not furlough state employees nor raises taxes.  While some agencies chose to make permanent staff reductions as part of their annual budget request, no state employee will be asked to work days without pay, nor have their pay docked for unpaid time off.

While the state’s Quality Basic Education funding formula will see cuts to local districts, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones noted during the final meeting of the conference committee on the budget that 171 of the state’s 180 school districts have more than enough in local reserves to meet FY 2020 spending levels without making cuts.  Other education spending line items, including Pre-K, HOPE, Equalization, Sparsity, Teacher Training, and Transportation were fully funded without cuts. 

Appropriators rearranged this year’s bond package to borrow the money needed to keep transportation spending on track.  Georgia continues playing catchup on road and bridge infrastructure construction based on a plan started in 2015, despite the massive drop in driving due to the Covid-19 shutdown hitting gas tax revenues.

Proposed cuts to the GBI crime lab were reversed.  In addition, there were no cuts to the budget for public defenders.  Also spared from cuts were Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds.

Budget writers also managed to fund six months of a new program to combat maternal mortality, an issue where Georgia lags the nation.  The measure cleared both chambers a few days before the budget with lawmakers thinking at the time it may have to wait until next year to receive funding.

A measure that failed to make it to Governor Kemp’s desk was paid family leave for state employees.  Despite Ivanka Trump tweeting support of the measure from Athens Representative Houston Gaines, concerns of extending an “unfunded mandate” to local school systems seemed to tank the measure in Georgia’s Senate.

Perhaps the most significant non-budgetary issue to reach Governor Kemp was that of hate crimes, a law he signed on the last day of the session.  The House passed a measure similar to the final bill in 2019, with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd – and the protests that followed – giving the final push needed to finalize the legislation.  Prior to the bill signing, Georgia was one of only four states without a hate crimes law.

Georgia legislators return home to face primary runoff elections in August and a general election in November.  Those who return in January will have a blank slate, but will likely pick up the same budget issues and pressures immediately.

In the interim, we’ll see if the federal government sends additional assistance to states and local governments.  We’ll have six more months of data on the re-opening of the economy, as well as know if the Covid-19 pandemic has been contained or remains both a public health and economic threat.  We’ll likely know the extent of airline layoffs on the state’s economy, with Delta already beginning the process of layoff notices to pilots last week.

With this level of uncertainty, the ability to minimize the impact of cuts to vital state programs deserves notice.  Were it not for the work of members of the Appropriations Committees as well as the Governor’s staff at OPB, the cuts could have been worse.  Let’s know pray for better news with respect to both the virus and the economy, so we don’t have to revisit them with an even sharper knife in January. 

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