Gov. Brian Kemp announces his budget plans during the State of the State. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Despite cries of ‘extreme’ budget cuts, Georgians won’t feel many of them

Critics decry Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed state spending cuts as “extreme” and “draconian” measures that would reduce services, with warnings of severe problems including more suicides and fewer food safety inspections.

Some of them may impact state services, but his budget plan also includes line after line of mundane cuts that most Georgians won’t notice, the kind of things agencies commonly do when a governor asks them to spend less.

Agencies would save millions by not sending as many people to conferences. One department is saving big money eliminating its landline phones for employees with state-funded cellphones. Some are saving on rent and technology charges.

About one-third of the savings Kemp is expecting would come from eliminating vacant jobs, including some that agencies might badly need to fill. Others have been unfilled for a long time, and agencies have said they can get by without.

Even some of the cuts that have been high-profile, such as the reductions to county public health departments, may not turn out to be as troubling as lawmakers initially thought, agency officials say, because there is another pot of money for basic programs such as immunizations that isn’t being reduced.

Former state Rep. Ben Harbin, a Republican who ran the House budget committee during much of the Great Recession, said it’s not surprising that lawmakers are seeing a lot of spending cuts this year for things such as travel and phones.

“Since the Great Recession, governments have grown. You start growing some things that are nice to have,” Harbin said. “A lot of that is the first to go when you start cutting a budget. Those things aren’t going to affect peoples’ lives on a daily basis.”

Governor’s cuts cause concern

Kemp ordered state agencies in August to prepare plans for 4% budget cuts this fiscal year and 6% next year to both prepare in case of an economic slowdown and provide money for his priorities, including the $2,000 pay raise for teachers he recommended in January. About three-fourths of the budget — money that goes to k-12 schools, colleges, the health program Medicaid and transportation — were exempted from reductions.

Lawmakers are currently on recess to work on rewriting Kemp’s proposal, and they will spend this week in budget hearings.

Privately, legislators accuse some agency directors — most of them appointed by Kemp — of soft-pedaling the impact of the proposed cuts.

Lawmakers have expressed concerns about spending reductions in a lot of areas, including mental health and substance abuse programs, rural economic development, and agricultural research and food inspections.

They wonder whether there will be room in programs to help Georgians in crisis, whether the criminal justice overhaul they supported and funded will be shorted, whether criminal defendants will have a public defender to handle their cases because of vacancies that won’t be filled.

“These are not frivolous things that we’re cutting on. These are really — to me, at least — ought to be priorities for us as a state,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Many at the Capitol, including Ralston, have been through this before, only on a much larger scale.

Kemp’s cuts would save the state about $200 million this year and $300 million next year. During the Great Recession, state revenue dropped almost 20% between 2008 and 2010 — more than $3 billion — and cutbacks led to 200,000 teachers and state employees being furloughed, rounds of layoffs, and the elimination of programs.

The state Democratic Party has called the latest cuts “draconian” and “extreme” and plans to use them against Republicans to boost its legislative candidates in the fall election.

But Kyle Wingfield, the president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said, “This is not the Great Recession all over again, despite some of the rhetoric you hear; we’re still talking about spending more state tax dollars this year than last year, and more next year than this year.”

While he doesn’t agree with all the cuts, Wingfield said, “For the most part, we’re talking about a new administration setting new priorities, and it seems pretty likely that they could find some unnecessary spending to cut to fund those priorities.”

Conventions and phone lines

Some cuts this time around may impact Georgians. But as lawmakers have been going through the budget in recent weeks, they’ve also seen plenty of tweaks that will likely have less direct effect on services.

“The message to state agencies was abundantly clear: Utilize technology to streamline operations, eliminate redundancies and vacancies, and cut waste to best serve the people of this great state,” said Cody Hall, the governor’s spokesman. “Following a months-long process, our budgets certainly accomplish that directive.”

At least $18 million would be cut over the next year-and-a-half on travel. That figure may be even higher because it is not always clearly singled out in budget documents.

In some cases that may mean only one person from an office goes to a conference, rather than six or seven. Or nobody goes.

The agency run by Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward would cut several million in travel.

“We’re still going to conferences,” Ward told budget writers last week. “If you want my people to come to a conference, if you pay for it, we’ll go.”

Ward’s agency is also eliminating some high-paid management positions, offering those employees lower-paid jobs in the prison system.

The Department of Juvenile Justice would save more than $400,000 by eliminating landline phones for staffers who have state-funded cellphones, an example Kemp’s Office of Planning and Budget has noted.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in December that about 1,200 vacant jobs would be eliminated. Many of those have been highlighted in recent weeks, such as frozen positions in the Georgia Public Defenders Council and GBI crime labs that test things such as rape kits and DNA.

Other agencies have had unfilled jobs on the books for more than a year and, in a strong economy, were having trouble filling them anyway. They’ve been doing the agency’s business without them.

Lawmakers didn’t like hearing Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black tell them some of the vacant jobs being eliminated were for food safety inspectors. There are more stores to inspect but fewer inspectors to do the job. Still, Black told legislators that, while those jobs are on the books, he is having trouble filing them in part because the pay starts at $31,000 a year.

“For some of these, we have simply not been able to find a qualified person to go to work for what we are are willing to pay them,” Black told a House budget subcommittee.

One of the cuts that has caused a lot of heartburn is the proposed reduction in grants that go to the county health departments. Public health departments are especially important in rural Georgia counties with few, if any, doctors.

Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey told lawmakers that counties receive more than one kind of state health grant. The ones that pay for basic programs, such as immunizations, wouldn’t be reduced, she said.

The reductions could mean vacant positions won’t be filled, but Toomey said some health departments can fill shifts by staggering work hours.

“The intent was to give maximum flexibility and to not reduce programs like immunizations, breast and cervical cancer (screenings), women’s issues, that you have come to expect,” Toomey said.

Harbin said he expects lawmakers this year to react similarly to the way his colleagues did during the Great Recession.

“The conversation we had back then was, we told folks, ‘we’re cutting your budget, tell us what you have to have,’ ” he said. “That’s part of why this next week and a half will be important.”

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