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.
Atlanta, GA – Today Governor Brian P. Kemp delivered the following address as he signed the State of Georgia’s FY2021 Budget:
“Six months ago, we gathered under this Gold Dome to kick off the 2020 Legislative Session. Excitement was high, and the expectations were even higher. Little did we know, the unthinkable was right around the corner. COVID-19 put our plans and progress on pause as it spread across the world, threatening the lives of Georgians far and wide. In its wake, this deadly virus spurred an economic recession, impacting every industry in every corner of our great state.
“To be honest, today is bittersweet. Yes, this budget reflects our values as a state. It funds core services and protects the vital mission of our state agencies. This budget prioritizes education, healthcare, and public safety. It puts people over politics and helps ensure a safer, stronger tomorrow for all Georgians. But this budget speaks to some of the hard choices made by state leaders to streamline and innovate. While we were able to avoid draconian cuts, getting this budget to balance was hard. These are challenging times, and the budget reflects that reality.
“While much has changed over the last several months, my priorities as Georgia’s governor have remained the same. With the closing of schools, Georgia families have a renewed appreciation for our teachers, counselors, specialists, and staff. These men and women are unsung heroes, and we appreciate their efforts during the pandemic to adapt, educate, and inspire students in every part of our state. To keep Georgia moving in the right direction and minimize the long-term impact of COVID-19 on our classrooms, this budget fully funds enrollment growth and training for public school education. It recognizes a 7.8% increase in enrollment at state charter schools, and this budget provides $55 million in additional lottery funds for the HOPE Scholarship to meet projected demand. With 53% of the 2021 budget dedicated to education, we continue to put students first.
“The pandemic has targeted the most vulnerable populations in our state, highlighting the healthcare disparities that exist. Now, more than ever, we see that access to quality, affordable healthcare – in every zip code – is essential and lifesaving. This budget fully funds projected growth in Medicaid and Peach Care, which is nearly $270 million. It also includes $19 million in new funding to offer six months of postpartum Medicaid coverage for Georgia mothers, effective upon approval by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. These big investments with help us enhance health outcomes. This budget will ensure a healthier tomorrow for all Georgians.
“Finally, we know that Georgia’s potential as a state is directly tied to public safety. Our future hinges on the safety and security of our citizens. During this healthcare crisis, we have seen law enforcement officers play a vital role in the fight against COVID-19. Moving forward, we must continue to support efforts to crack down on sex trafficking, dismantle street gangs, protect communities from violence, and pursue justice. We must stand with law enforcement now – just like they stood with us during our most difficult days. In this budget, we have included resources to expand the GBI Gang Task Force, fund a 50-person trooper school, and support personal services and operating expenses for motor carrier officers in the Ports Corridor. These public safety dollars will pay huge dividends as we emerge from this healthcare and economic crisis. We will keep our neighborhoods, communities, and families safe and secure.
“The fundamentals of our economy remain strong, and I have incredible confidence in job creators across all sectors. As these men and women lead Georgia’s economic revival, we will do our part to leverage opportunities for economic stimulus through our capital spending programs. This budget includes a $1.1 billion bond package that will spur growth and opportunity through numerous construction activities. $340 million of the total package is for major repairs and renovations of state-owned facilities and transportation infrastructure. There’s $70 million in bond funds for the expansion of the convention center at the Savannah-Georgia Convention Center Authority, $12 million in bond funds for facility repairs and improvements at the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, and $115 million in bond funds for the repair, replacement, and renovation of roads and bridges statewide through the Georgia Department of Transportation. This bond package will Georgia regain its competitive advantage. We will not let coronavirus undermine our progress.
“The legislature has but one constitutional requirement, and that’s to pass a balanced budget. I want to commend Chairman England, Chairman Tillery, their colleagues, and staff for working so hard to fulfill their duty, even during these unprecedented times. I also want to pause and thank Georgia’s 82nd Governor, Nathan Deal, for his bold leadership and conservative planning. Thanks to the resources that he allocated to the Rainy-Day Fund, we are able to balance the budget without furloughs to state employees. We are grateful for his wisdom and service. Finally, I want to thank President Trump, Vice President Pence, and our congressional delegation for securing funds for Georgia through the CARES Act. These resources will help state and local governments minimize the impact of COVID-19 on those we are honored to serve.
“In the fight against coronavirus, we are seeing encouraging signs. The case fatality rate continues to decline as testing nears one million. Our hospitals have surge capacity, and thanks to GEMA, we are providing PPE to people and places that need it most. On the economic side, we are seeing positive momentum. Businesses are slowly – and safely – reopening, and several companies have announced relocation projects and expansions in the Peach State. But look, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still more work to be done to protect the lives – and livelihoods – of all Georgians. We have to remain vigilant in the days ahead. We have to hunker down and keep choppin’. I am confident that if we continue to work together, we will see better days. I know that we can build a safer, stronger, healthier, and more prosperous Georgia for generations to come. Again, thank you to Chairman England, Chairman Tillery, and those who are gathered here today. May God bless you and the great state of Georgia!”