Senators hold first in-person meeting at State Capitol since March

Tuesday morning, members of the Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee were the first to hold an in-person meeting at the Georgia State Capitol since the legislature ended in mid-March.

Only a handful of masked lawmakers attended the budget hearing while hundreds of people watched the proceedings through an online video stream.

"This is entirely new ground," said Chairman Ellis Black, R-Valdosta.  "We have nothing--no precedents to guide us.  So, we're just making this up as we go along."

That uncharted territory applied not only to the meeting set up, but its content.

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The State Senate held its first in-person subcommittee meeting at the State Capitol in nearly two months on May 26, 2020. (FOX 5)

Governor Brian Kemp has asked state agencies to plan for 14 percent budget reductions after the coronavirus pandemic dramatically slowed the state's tax revenues. 

Rusk Roam with the Georgia Department of Education told lawmakers that would equate to a nearly $1.5 billion cut to funding for school districts across the state and almost $17 million in operating expenses.

"We [froze] hiring for all non-essential employees and we're evaluating every position at the department," explained Roam.  "We've limited and reduced travel through January 2021."

The decision on whether to shorten the school year to save money, officials said, would be up to individual districts.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, however, has proposed cutting the pre-kindergarten program from 180 days down to 167 and furloughing teachers for those 13 days at an estimated savings of $34 million dollars. 

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Concerned about the loss of instructional time for students, Chairman Black asked whether teachers would consider a one-time salary reduction, rather than furlough days. 

"I can't imagine that a Pre-K teacher or any teacher for that matter would think favorable to that if they're required to work the same number of days, but are receiving less pay.  That would be my first impression," said DECAL Commissioner Amy Jacobs.

DECAL's budget proposal also includes eliminating 4,000 of the state's 84,000 Pre-K spots, which would shutter 180 classrooms across the state and save $14 million. 

"We have lost humongous opportunity with what we have just experienced in the last two months of this current year.  Now, I don't think we need to top that off with another 13 days of furloughs in this upcoming year.  That's just me personally.  Somehow or another we need to work around this," said Chairman Black. 

The subcommittee has not yet scheduled its next budget meeting.

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