By Beau Evans
Gov. Brian Kemp indicated Thursday he does not expect to call for deep budget cuts again after state-funded agencies slashed spending this year to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia.
Speaking at Bridgestone Golf in Covington, Kemp said his administration does not “see a need for across-the-board cuts again this coming year” after state lawmakers squeezed agency budgets by about $2.2 million starting July 1.
The governor’s comments came as he touted Georgia’s economic growth over the past year despite the harm inflicted by COVID-19, which has seen an uptick in positive case rates in recent weeks as officials and health experts brace for potential outbreaks during the winter holiday season.
“We are still facing a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and we will continue to fight every day to keep Georgians safe and healthy,” Kemp said Thursday.
State lawmakers passed a $25.9 billion budget for the 2021 fiscal year after Kemp initially ordered all agencies to reduce their budgets by 14% in May, then scaled back those cuts to 10% in late June as declines in tax revenues spurred by the pandemic showed signs of slowing.
Agencies in charge of schools, public health, mental-health services, state troopers, prisons and more swallowed the 10% cuts without undertaking widespread layoffs or furloughs, though many observers pushed to no avail for hiking the state’s tobacco tax and curbing tax breaks instead of spending cuts.
Since then, job growth has picked up in Georgia amid relaxed COVID-19 business restrictions while economic-development projects attracted more than $4.3 billion in investments from July through October, marking a 56% increase over the same four-month period last year, Kemp said.
Georgia has also held onto its AAA bond rating throughout the pandemic, another factor Kemp said gives him confidence more budget cuts won’t be needed when lawmakers meet in January to start hashing out revisions for this year’s fiscal budget and draft the budget for the 2022 fiscal year.
On Thursday, Kemp announced Georgia was picked again as the best state to do business by an industry magazine that has handed the state that distinction for eight years running now.
“This is certainly welcome news in these challenging times,” Kemp said.
Kemp has faced criticism since the summer for allowing businesses and gathering spots to reopen with fewer distancing restrictions than several other states have kept in place, as well as for declining to issue a statewide order to wear masks.
The governor has frequently defended his position to let Georgians adopt distancing and cleanliness practices largely on their own as a strategy to promote public-health safety without cratering the state’s economy.
Positive COVID-19 case rates in Georgia have crept up over the past month, a trend that has many local public-health experts concerned about a possible upcoming spike if people ignore distancing practices while celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Kemp sought to reassure Thursday that Georgia is prepared for any potential outbreaks, noting he is keeping in close contact with local hospitals and that the state’s COVID-19 case numbers so far remain much lower than they were during a peak in July.
“While we’re grateful Georgia is not currently seeing the challenges with [COVID-19] that other states across the country are, we have to continue to remain vigilant every day,” Kemp said.
More than 377,000 people in Georgia had contracted COVID-19 as of Thursday afternoon. The virus had killed 8,333 Georgians.