Opinion: A legislative session goes off-track -- over cuts and transparency

February 5, 2020 - Atlanta -  House Speaker David Ralston holds a press conference after today's session where the house voted to adjourn until February 18th to allow time to work on the budget.  The House was in session this morning as the Georgia 2020 General Assembly continued for it's twelfth legislative day.     Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
February 5, 2020 - Atlanta - House Speaker David Ralston holds a press conference after today's session where the house voted to adjourn until February 18th to allow time to work on the budget. The House was in session this morning as the Georgia 2020 General Assembly continued for it's twelfth legislative day. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

The Legislature had burned through 12 days of a 40-day session when House and Senate leaders stomped on the brakes and brought the state Capitol to a screeching halt.

Formal sessions won’t resume until Feb. 18.

Unless you have endured multiple sessions of the General Assembly, you can’t immediately grasp how far this 2020 session has gone off track. And how quickly.

On Thursday, one day after the state Capitol had emptied, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, sat down with me for a good 45 minutes to explain the impasse that has erupted between his chamber and Gov. Brian Kemp. He didn’t seek to escalate the situation, and repeatedly referred to the governor as “my friend.”

But Ralston strongly objected to a series of budget cuts the governor has ordered for much of state government, but have yet to be ferreted out by members of his chamber. “These are not frivolous things that we’re cutting on. These really – to me, at least – ought to be priorities for us as a state,” Ralston said.

Food will go uninspected, rape kits will languish untested, and hundreds of non-violent probationers could lose their places in accountability courts and become part of the state’s prison population.

The House speaker also hinted at a governor’s office that was attempting to expand its authority over state spending in a manner that hasn’t been seen in decades.

The Legislature convened on Jan. 13. Governor Kemp quickly submitted two budget bills. One proposed a 4% reduction in the current state budget, which has another five months to run. A second covered the larger $28 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It contains a 6% cut.

Hiatuses of the Legislature are relatively common, but they usually come later in the session, after both chambers have had a crack at the governor’s spending proposals.

Conflicts usually concern the larger budget bill, and become a three-way negotiation among the leadership of the House and Senate, and the governor. Often, a recess is declared and idle lawmakers are sent home.

This is different. Suppose this year’s budget process to be a train that runs from Brookwood Station in downtown Atlanta clear to Washington D.C. In this case, the derailment would be located in Lawrenceville.

The House has yet to approve either budget bill. Which means the impasse is a fundamental one. It has roots in a languishing state revenue stream, and the governor’s August order to state department heads, demanding immediate cuts in spending.

Ralston began his tenure as House speaker in 2010, when the impact of the Great Recession was well underway. Given that experience, he asked House budget-writers to immediately put together a series of hearings in which state department heads could detail the impact of the slicing to come.

But on Sept. 5, David Dove, the governor’s executive counsel, sent out a memo in which he declared that state lawmakers – which by then included members of the Senate, too – were to be told nothing, given no documents for the early hearings.

If there is one sentence that gave birth to the current situation in the state Capitol, it may be this one in Dove’s memo: “Further, the law contemplates that no submission is made to the General Assembly until it is organized for a legislative session.”

Each year, the Legislature convenes on the second Monday of January, for 40 working days, then goes home. Dove’s assertion amounts to a serious reduction in the General Assembly’s oversight ability for nine months out of the year.

(House members quickly pointed to the portion of the Georgia Code that says the Office of Planning and Budget “shall make its records and information available at all times to the General Assembly and its designees.”)

During September and October, Ralston said his encounters with Governor Kemp and his staff remained cordial. Promises of more information were made, but not fulfilled.

“I could have come out with all guns blazing and have the appropriations people fire off public demands to all these agencies and departments for information. I thought that would be counterproductive to a spirit of cooperation,” Ralston said. In a somewhat regretful tone, the speaker said the decision was “on me.”

When the Legislature convened last month, House budget writers still felt shortchanged in the specific information department. “I heard more and more frustration on the part of people on the appropriations committee who normally aren’t complainers or whiners,” Ralston said.

Three days of budget testimony by dozens of state department heads were held last month. The last to appear was Kelly Farr, the director of the state Office of Planning and Budget. He is the governor’s top budget writer.

Lawmakers began peppering Farr with unanswered questions about cuts in the budget proposal, which he was in charge of writing. Farr refused, saying he would only speak of money spent by OPB itself, on things like accountants and office supplies and staff salaries and such.

The encounter is stored on video. Members of the speaker’s staff put Ralston at a large table with members of the House Appropriations Committee. A laptop was placed in front of Ralston, and Farr’s testimony was played.

“Others were laughing. I wasn’t laughing. I was offended,” Ralston said. “It was unbelievable. I thought it was very, very unfortunate. And I was offended by that.”

And that’s when talk of putting a temporary halt to current legislative proceedings began.

“The governor’s my friend. I don’t have any goal here other than for us as a House to do our job. He understands what my job is, and I understand what his job is,” Ralston said. “We may disagree on some of the specifics, but I’m at a point in life when I think disagreements can be a healthy thing.”

This is an election year, of course, and competing campaign promises are an additional part of the current tension. In 2018, lawmakers lowered the state income tax from 6% to 5.75%, with the expectation they could slice another .25% off this year – at a cost in state revenue of $550 million.

Kemp has $2,000 remaining in his promise to raise teacher salaries by $5,000. Finishing the job would cost more than $350 million.

In the past, Ralston has favored the former over the latter. But he made no mention of an income tax cut on Thursday.

“The governor made a significant campaign promise, and I can appreciate he wants to keep that promise. I’m not disagreeing with that goal,” Ralston said. “I’m of the view that this is not saying ‘no.’ It may just be saying ‘not now.’”

The speaker pointed out that Georgia teachers now have the highest pay in the Southeast, and their salaries are above the national average. Ralston said a further pay hike should be measured against items that Kemp has suggested cutting.

Ralston repeated Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black’s testimony that more food inspections would have to be pushed into federal hands.

“And accountability courts. My goodness, those are something I know a little bit about. Those are working,” Ralston said, referring to the criminal justice reforms put into place by Gov. Nathan Deal, intended to keep non-violent offenders out of prison.

Cuts suggested by the governor would cut out nearly 500 participants, he said.

“Then the question becomes, do you put those people on regular probation or do you put them in prison. And we all know that prison is a much, much, much more expensive alternative,” Ralston said.

The governor’s immediate spending plan would eliminate three GBI scientists and two lab techs from a system that’s already overloaded. The processing of rape kits, made a priority only a few years ago, would again be slowed. “We’re catching bad guys with that,” Ralston said.

Then there is reduced spending on mental health programs, expected to prompt increases in suicides. The governor has also ordered immediate cuts to all 159 county health departments. “There are 11 counties in rural Georgia where that is the only medical facility – the county health department. No medical doctor, no nurse practitioner, no hospital,” Ralston said.

County health departments figure large in a House-plan to attack Georgia’s exceedingly high mortality rate for new mothers – particularly among African-American women in rural Georgia.

There’s not enough room here to list all of Ralston’s concerns. And it is only one side of the coin. My colleagues and I will happily listen to Governor Kemp’s version of events, should he choose to air them.

But before we parted, I asked Speaker Ralston if he contemplated any major changes to the state’s generous tax credit program for the film and TV industry, which has sparked a billion-dollar movie boom in Georgia.

As the session began, two state audits were published, both critical of the program. Last year, the credits amounted to an estimated $870 million in forfeited revenue, and as we’ve said – the budget is tight.

"I'm looking for an audit that everybody agrees is accurate," Ralston said. "We have a state auditor that walks into my office a week into session, and paints a picture  that is completely inconsistent with everything that all of us have thought since '07."

The state Department of Economic Development has since produced a competing study that paints a brighter picture – but which has also been subjected to criticism.

“What we have to remember is that, at the end of that tax credit are Georgians working at jobs. I know one pretty well,” Ralston said. “Have you seen ‘Just Mercy’? Go see it, and wait for the credits.”

His daughter’s name is there. She manages props, designs sets and scouts filming locations in Georgia.

“It’s a great, great movie,” Ralston said.

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