Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp leaves the podium after he addressed the 2019 Season Joint Budget hearings in January. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Georgia agencies’ plans to reduce budgets heavy on job, pay cuts

Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration says layoffs should be the last resort for state agencies trying to meet his call for budget cuts, but department heads have been contacting employees in recent weeks to tell them their jobs may be eliminated, or that they’ll have to take huge pay cuts.

In a couple of cases, Department of Corrections staffers would see their pay cut by more than half, while others would lose tens of thousands of dollars a year, according to agency plans. Some employees are having to consider lining up new jobs because they aren’t sure whether they can afford to continue working for the state.

Employment in state government — excluding the University System of Georgia — has dropped by about 17,000 workers since the year before the Great Recession, many leaving in the early years of the downturn when staffers were laid off, retired early or endured regular furloughs. State government today operates with about 20% fewer workers.

Now, the question is whether the state will see another exodus because of how agencies are responding to Kemp’s demand for 4% spending cuts this year and 6% next year, and how many will be gone before the General Assembly returns in January to consider the impact of those budget reductions.

Another question: How much of the savings Kemp hopes to wring from state government — about $200 million this year and $300 million next year — will come from eliminating jobs that are currently vacant or will be because of high turnover rates in some agencies?

Many of the affected state agencies — such as the Department of Human Services and the Department of Natural Resources — have said they will save big money by either eliminating vacant positions or by not filling them when somebody leaves, according to emails and budget plans obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That could mean little change in the services Georgians use. Or, it could mean, for instance, heavier caseloads for child welfare workers and public defenders who remain or longer waits for obtaining driver’a licenses or testing criminal evidence.

Employees wonder what’s ahead

Agency directors are telling the public very little about their plans, some of which may have already gone into effect since Kemp’s budget office said they would be receiving smaller financial allotments starting Oct. 1.

But lawmakers are receiving calls from state employees in their districts, wondering whether they’ll have a job, or be taking a pay cut, by the end of the year to meet the governor’s call for spending reductions.

“There is a lot of panic right now among rank-and-file workers,” state Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from Midway and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said at a hearing last month. “They are very concerned. It affects morale tremendously if a person doesn’t know if they are going to have a job in January.”

Danny Kanso, a budget analyst for the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute and a former aide to then-Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, said that’s not surprising.

“I think it’s hard to imagine, when you tell folks they are going to work more for less money, that morale is going to be up at these agencies,” Kanso said. “Some of these agencies already have high turnover rates. It’s not clear how they will be able to leave positions vacant. The question is, what are the consequences for Georgians?”

One attorney for a state agency who made less than $75,000 last year said she decided she had to look for another job when she was told she’d earn less because of the mandated cuts. With student loan debt and bills to pay, she figured she’d run through her savings pretty quickly. She put out feelers, even though she was passionate about her work for the state.

“The first thought I had when I saw the email (about the cuts) was that I could just sell my car, and then I wouldn’t have to pay for car insurance and I could afford to keep my job,” she said. “And I thought that was crazy, so then I looked for other things I could cancel.”

The lawyer, who asked that her name not be used because her new employer hadn’t authorized her to speak about her experiences, said people in her agency were having to take second or third jobs to make ends meet.

“I don’t feel like I made a choice, it was made for me,” she said. “Before I opened the email, if anyone had ever asked me if I would quit, the answer would have been an emphatic, impassioned no. It was not something I would have even considered.”

Agencies offer pay and job cuts

The governor ordered the cuts in August to both prepare the state in case of an economic downturn and reallocate money so there is funding available for his priorities, including higher teacher pay.

Kemp had reason to be concerned: The state’s fiscal economist said there is a 50-50 chance of a mild recession next year, and tax collections have been slow the first three months of fiscal 2020, which began July 1.

Three-fourths of the state’s spending is exempt from the cuts — money that goes to fund k-12 schools and universities, the Medicaid public health care program, and to build and maintain roads and bridges.

Most of the areas not exempt are personnel-heavy, such as the Georgia State Patrol and the agriculture extension service.

Kelly Farr, the governor’s budget director, told lawmakers last month that before layoffs would be approved, Kemp wants agencies to cut staff travel, look at using technology to trim costs and consider leaving open vacancies that may not need to be filled.

In a memo to departments last month, Farr wrote, “Budget reductions are meant to identify opportunities to make state government more efficient through technology, by eliminating duplicative services, or by streamlining regulations, not through eliminating core services to taxpayers or across the board reductions in force or furloughs.”

Some agencies made personnel plans clear when they submitted budget proposals to Farr in early September. The Department of Human Services, for instance, listed more than 200 jobs to be cut, but it said they were or would be unfilled positions in an agency that traditionally has high employee turnover. The public defender office said in its plan it would furlough staffers 10 days through June 30, the equivalent of about two weeks of lost pay. It is unclear what parts of those plans, if any, have been implemented.

Beyond the initial proposals — some of which were extremely vague — department heads have mostly been mum about how they will deal with the cuts, especially after Kemp’s office directed them not to attend public House and Senate budget hearings last month.

Several departments have proposed RIFs, or reductions in force, in recent weeks, according to emails and other documents obtained by the AJC using the state’s Open Records Act.

In government speak, a RIF can mean a layoff, salary cut or furlough in which the staffer has to take days off without pay.

On the day allotments were cut, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation laid off four of eight employees slated for RIFs from the Sex Offender Registration Review Board. All eight were offered different jobs in the agency, but only four accepted.

The Department of Corrections — possibly the hardest-hit agency — said that starting Oct. 21 it would increase the price of everything from Doritos, Spam and dental floss to book lights, Mother’s Day cards and hair gel in prison commissaries. It also listed hundreds of positions that would be RIFed, from construction and food services to administrative staff and education. Some would be laid off, others transferred to new jobs. Big pay cuts would affect some starting in mid-November.

The director of victims services would see a salary cut from $117,000 to about $45,000, according to the agency’s RIF plan. “The employee will be offered the opportunity to continue employment with the department in the new job title,” the plan said. “If the employee decides not to accept the offer, the employee will be released.” A senior training manager would be offered a lower-level job paying $35,000 — a 56% cut — according to the plan.

The RIF plan includes 26 teachers in the system. About half would take pay cuts in the range of $25,000 a year. The two highest-paid teachers — earning about $101,000 a year — would face $37,727 cuts.

In some cases, corrections staffers are being offered other positions in the massive agency.

Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward said the agency is still finalizing the number of potential layoffs, but it is focusing on making sure the front-line jobs — guarding inmates — were full.

“Our core mission is to protect the folks who are running things at our facilities,” Ward said. “We might have a reduction in force, but we’re going to give people the opportunity to still be employed but doing those jobs that have a direct effect with our front-line core mission.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice listed about 42 position cuts, mostly layoffs in maintenance jobs. The Department of Driver Services, which handles driver’s licenses, listed cuts to examiner positions in several local offices.

Lessons from the Great Recession

Ben Harbin, who was the House Appropriations chairman when the Great Recession was first felt in Georgia in mid-2008, remembers the thousands of furloughs and layoffs that hit state government at the time. He understands what agency directors face.

“Layoffs are unfortunate, but it’s a function of keeping state government going and making sure services are provided,” Harbin said. “We had to go to state agencies and ask them what their core mission was.

“Any time you lose someone it’s terrible. But it’s about what the core responsibility of government is. For instance, in my mind, the core responsibility of the Department of Corrections is public safety.”

But John Palmer, a Cobb County educator and spokesman for the teacher, state employee and retiree group TRAGIC, said the state and schools lost a lot when spending was cut dramatically during the Great Recession. Strapped school districts, for instance, furloughed educators, cut staff, and class sizes got bigger, making it harder to reach individual students.

He suspects trimming the state budget this time will make government less, not more efficient.

“Just as teachers can’t teach 35 kids more efficiently than they can 25, adding to the workload of state employees will not allow those employees to work efficiently and quickly,” he said. “Thanks to pay freezes and lowered benefits, state agencies already have a difficult time recruiting and retaining quality employees. Lowering the agency budgets will only exacerbate that problem.”

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