Georgia Senate spending plan for 2021 sets billions in cuts

A revised version of Georgia’s state budget for the upcoming year would cut $2.6 billion in state money after Gov. Brian Kemp told lawmakers to reduce spending by 11%.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday voted to advance House Bill 793, the state budget for the year beginning July 1. It now moves to the full Senate for more debate.

Under the plan, the state would spend less than $26 billion in state money, down from $28 billion originally projected. With federal funding, spending would be nearly double, including a boost in Medicaid funding that will help preserve the state-federal insurance program for the poor and disabled without cuts.

Although the measure is less severe than the 14% reductions Kemp and top lawmakers originally were preparing, it will still mean service cuts, unpaid furloughs and layoffs across state government, K-12 schools and state colleges and universities.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, took over the task of leading budget writing for his chamber after longtime chairman Jack Hill of Reidsville died in April. Tillery told senators Wednesday the reductions would sting.

“Due to the current predicament, there will be less. There’s no need to sugar-coat that,” Tillery said. “Our state’s budget must balance. We don’t hold the keys to a printing press.”

Republicans, though have passed up some chances to raise spending. Some advocates pushed for an increase in tobacco taxes that could have raised as much as $500 million. Although some senators are exploring reducing tax breaks, Tillery said any such changes would come too late to aid the budget beginning July 1. Lawmakers also chose not to dip into the state’s rainy day fund, with Tillery saying he wanted to preserve the savings account in case of an additional shortfall.

The state is on track to spend $1 billion or more from the $2.7 billion rainy day fund to close this year’s budget gap. Some money will come back when Georgia collects state income taxes in July after delaying them from April. Tillery said that money will be placed into the budget year ending June 30, reducing the deficit.

Some areas were cut a little more or less than others, but even workers at the Department of Public Health, on the front lines of fighting coronavirus infections, will be required to take 12 furlough days without pay. State aid to county health departments will fall $14 million.

Tillery said senators worked to limit unpaid days off to one per month. Some large agencies had proposed two per month.

Lawmakers would spend $1.2 billion less on K-12 education, including $1 billion less on the funding formula that aids Georgia’s 180 local school districts. Lawmakers would preserve spending that aids schools that are very rural or have low property tax wealth, as well as spending that pays for yearly experience raises for teachers. But many local districts are likely to resort to furloughs. The University System of Georgia would get $400 million less. It, too, plans furloughs and possibly layoffs.

House members had originally proposed a much sunnier budget before state tax revenues tumbled during COVID-19 pandemic, with debate then centering on giving teachers an additional raise or further cutting state income tax rates.

Senators and House members have both agreed to take 11% pay cuts from their $17,000 salaries, Tillery said. He said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has agreed to take a 14% pay cut. Duncan now makes more than $90,000 a year.

Lawmakers saved a few programs. Farmers markers in Cordele and Thomasville will operate seasonally instead of being closed entirely. A few more slots will be added to a program providing at-home services for adults with developmental disabilities. But balancing those are other painful cuts, like no more beds for substance abuse treatment.

No state troopers or Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents will be furloughed, and senators retained $880,000 for Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan for an anti-gang task force. But trooper numbers will fall as a training school will be delayed until 2022 and 27 vacant crime lab positions and 28 GBI agent positions will go unfilled.

Preschool and college scholarship programs funded by the lottery would be preserved whole because lottery revenues are relatively steady. That keeps 4,000 child-care slots, as well as keep the preschool year from being cut by 13 school days. Preschool teachers wouldn’t see a pay cut.

Some senators are considering eliminating some tax breaks, including the tax break on jet fuel that benefits Delta Air Lines, a tax break on yacht repairs, or making manufacturers pay sales taxes on electricity. It’s unclear if any of the ideas will make it out of committee, and House Speaker David Ralston rejected the plans Tuesday.

“I looked at it very quickly and asked my staff to calculate how many jobs it would kill, frankly” Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican said of the proposal.