Georgia agencies mostly seek more for pay, staffing in next budget

For the first time in his tenure, outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal let state agencies ask for more funding, and many of them want the same, fairly mundane things: higher pay to retain workers and more staffers to improve services.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of agency requests submitted to the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget shows more than a dozen agencies are requesting extra workers and a similar number want extra money to raise pay, particularly in law enforcement and corrections agencies.

They submitted the requests last month in response to Deal's decision to let them ask for 2 percent increases for fiscal 2020, which begins July 1.

Throughout his tenure, which began in 2011, Deal has told agencies not to ask for increases in spending, outside of areas such as k-12 education and public health programs, where rising enrollment meant higher costs.

Deal made the change this year with full knowledge that he won’t be the one implementing next year’s budget.

Either Democrat Stacey Abrams or Republican Brian Kemp — the two major-party candidates for governor — will be putting together a budget plan for the General Assembly to consider in January.

Both have extensive and expensive plans that would greatly boost state spending, so it’s unclear how much money would be left for the requests by agency directors.

State agencies help educate 2 million children, provide health care to 2 million Georgians, build roads, maintain parks, investigate crimes and run prisons. About 200,000 teachers and state and university employees receive at least part of their paychecks from the state, and many of them collect state pensions when they retire.

Typically, in a good economy, state tax collections increase about $900 million to $1 billion a year.

However, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said about $650 million of that will be eaten up next year mostly by increased costs for k-12 schools, colleges and universities, and Medicaid — the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled.

Abrams and Kemp have each proposed new spending in the range of $1 billion.

How much of that the state will be able to afford next year is unclear, but England said he was pleased that state agencies asked mostly for basic needs, such as more salary money to retain staffers.

“I have been really impressed with the way agencies have seen that it’s kind of a new day in state budgeting,” England said. “It seems like their requests have been very responsible. I was pleasantly surprised the way they have been going about it.”

Growth in spending has been slow for many state agencies since the Great Recession. The exceptions have been in areas such as k-12 schools, where funding is based on formulas that automatically increase spending as enrollment grows.

State workers did not receive a cost-of-living pay raise this year, and in many agencies, pay hikes have been few and far between since 2008. Deal and lawmakers have given sizable increases in select areas, such as for law enforcement, corrections officers and child welfare staffers, where the pay has been low and turnover rate high.

But rank-and-file staffers in many other agencies have only gotten a few cost-of-living raises since the recession.

Some of the biggest areas of spending in state government, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Community Health, which runs Medicaid, requested money mostly just to keep up. The Education Department, for instance, asked for $126 million more in fiscal 2020, but that was largely for extra money flowing to local school systems to keep up with enrollment. The University System of Georgia requested $82.7 million for enrollment growth.

The Department of Community Health asked for $268 million over the midyear and fiscal 2020 budget to deal with the rising costs of its health care programs.

The Department of Corrections, one of the other big agencies in state government, requested about $21 million to raise the pay of counselors and officers in state prisons. The Department of Human Resources asked for about 40 positions to help on elder abuse investigations and prevention, and elder support programs, as well as $1.7 million more for staffers to help process Medicaid applications and reviews.

The Department of Juvenile Justice asked for about $4.5 million in salary increases to help it recruit and retain workers, while the Department of Public Safety asked for a little more than $1 million to increase salaries to hire and retain dispatchers and weight inspectors. The GBI requested six scientists or techs to make a dent in crime lab backlogs, plus 11 additional positions and operational expenses for the law enforcement agency's Cyber Crime Center in Augusta.

The Department of Natural Resources asked for almost $900,000 for an Urban Wildlife Program. DNR spokesman Wes Robinson said it would use two to three employees similar to game wardens to help in metro Atlanta when wildlife wanders into dense neighborhoods.

“Wildlife and human interactions are pretty common, but the people who least expect them live in the city,” he said.

Robinson said since game wardens cover such a large territory, it could take several hours to get a response when a resident calls in a bear or coyote sighting. With the program, DNR employees could respond quickly and potentially keep metro Atlantans from losing a dog or cat to a loose coyote.

Deal allowed agencies to request new spending because the economy is strong, and so is Georgia's financial picture, at least for the upcoming year. The governor will leave office with a record $2.5 billion in the state's savings account. Windfalls from the new federal tax legislation and more complete collections of state sales taxes on internet sales — given the OK by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year — could mean hundreds of millions of extra dollars in revenue next year.

However, both candidates for governor have big priorities. Abrams wants to expand Medicaid to more Georgians and dramatically increase the amount of affordable child care , two proposals that could cost a combined $600 million to $700 million. Kemp has called for a $5,000 pay raise for Georgia teachers, a proposal that could run $600 million to $800 million a year.

That doesn’t leave a lot of money for extra staffing or pay raises for state employees, which isn’t surprising since neither candidate has made that a focus of his or her campaign.

But Abrams said it’s fundamental to what the governor and the state do.

“We need to evaluate what we are asking of our government agencies, making sure we are paying them appropriately for the work we are asking them to do and right-sizing their responsibilities,” Abrams said. “The people of Georgia hire us to deliver services. The responsibility of the governor is to make sure we have the right number of people in each office.”

Kemp offered thanks to Deal for leaving the state in good financial shape.

“To build on his success and ensure a bright future for our state, I will cap government spending and lower taxes on Georgia families,” Kemp said. “We will streamline government and ensure that every dollar spent yields a positive return on investment for taxpayers.”