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First look at how Georgia lawmakers will try to cut 14% from coronavirus-depleted state budget
Georgia State Capitol

By Dave Williams

Capitol Beat News Service

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers will get their first look next week at how deep state agencies must cut their budgets to comply with spending reductions the legislature’s leading budget writers ordered in the wake of coronavirus.

Revised fiscal 2021 budget proposals the agencies submitted this week would freeze vacant positions, furlough workers and scale back vital programs and services to achieve $3 billion to $4 billion in cuts to offset the impact of declining tax revenues resulting from the pandemic-driven lockdown of the state’s economy.

Starting on Tuesday, Georgia Senate budget subcommittees will begin examining the spending cuts state agency heads have offered. The Senate gets first crack at the revised budget because the state House of Representatives passed a pre-coronavirus version of the budget in mid-March, shortly before the pandemic forced the 2020 legislative session to be temporarily suspended.

While the targeted spending reduction in the revised budget is 14% across the board, some cuts are larger and some are smaller.

A sampling of the proposed reductions includes:

  • a 50% cut in state support for charter schools, for a savings of about $2.1 million;

  • closing six of the nine state farmers markets leaving only the markets in Atlanta, Valdosta and Moultrie, for a savings of $780,028;

  • reducing grant funds to county boards of health by $17.8 million;

  • closing 50 Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) offices, for a savings of $1.6 million;

  • freezing vacant corrections officer positions in state prisons, for a savings of about $9 million;

  • 12-day furloughs for employees throughout the Department of Public Health, the agency in the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, for a savings of about $1.8 million;

  • 24-day furloughs for employees in the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which services the state’s mentally ill population;

  • eliminating 111 part-time and 41 full-time staff at the Department of Driver Services.

Such steep reductions would be counterproductive to the state’s economic recovery as well as devastating to Georgia families, said Danny Kanso, a policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“Layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes will only slow Georgia’s economy and exacerbate the problems underscored by COVID-19,” Kanso said.

“Based on current agency proposals, public health departments working hard to combat the virus will lose millions in funding, public schools will be underfunded by $1.5 billion, causing teachers to be furloughed and class sizes to increase, and the millions of newly unemployed Georgians seeking to enroll in necessary financial supports … will experience longer delays in receiving their benefits.”

State agencies will be able to offset the impact of some of the cuts by swapping in available federal funds for state dollars. For example, the DFCS budget proposal calls for drawing down $46.2 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding left over from the last fiscal year.

In its budget submission, the Department of Community Health (DCH) notes the availability of federal stimulus funds Congress has allocated to help state Medicaid programs with their coronavirus response. However, the agency points out that money will only be available during the public health emergency declared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“There is a risk that if the current situation improves and the [HHS] secretary declares that the emergency no longer exists, then the entire estimated savings will not be realized,” the DCH wrote.

Another limit on the federal largesse is that the stimulus funds Congress has approved for state and local governments thus far may only be spent addressing COVID-19, not to plug holes in the budget opened up by falling tax revenues.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed an additional stimulus package last week with $1 trillion earmarked for state and local governments, most of which could be put toward revenue shortfalls. But the measure looks to be a long shot in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

“We have to deal with the cards we have on the table right now,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

Tillery’s committee has scheduled seven subcommittee hearings during the next two weeks to take up budget-cutting proposals from various agencies.

The full General Assembly is due to resume the legislative session in mid-June, facing a tight legal deadline of July 1 to pass next year’s budget.