State Rep. Jasmine Clark of Lilburn was among Georgia Democrats who spoke against proposed cuts to health care agencies in the state budget. (PHOTO by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Georgia Democrats oppose health care budget cuts

Proposed budget cuts to health care fueled a Democratic press conference Tuesday at the Georgia Capitol. GOP legislative leaders have called a halt to the session in order to deal with Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget proposals.

The Democrats criticized what they called Kemp’s “extreme budget cuts” and said the testimony about reductions to health programs over the past two weeks was “terrifying.”

The governor in August ordered cuts in spending of 4% this fiscal year and 6% next year. They were to serve both as a hedge against an economic downturn amid slowing tax collections and to set aside money for Kemp’s priorities, including another pay raise for teachers.

While some of the cuts would reduce state services, others will be invisible to many Georgia residents, such as eliminating empty positions.

The House and Senate Democrats condemned cuts including grants that help fund county public health departments, programs that pay down the school debt of doctors who serve in rural areas, and mental health programs.

They said some of the cuts may save money in the short term but are shortsighted because the spending is meant to save more in the long term by staving off bigger health problems.

In response to such arguments, Kemp’s aides and agency heads have said they designed the cuts to cause as little disruption as possible.

“What you see here,” Public Health Director Kathleen Toomey told legislators, is an approach that “we felt was going to allow us to make the reductions with the minimum amount of impact.”

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, said constituents who elected her and her colleagues “sent us to fight for their health care.” As Democrats have at every opportunity, she lamented that the state was refusing to expand Medicaid to all the state’s poor, and thus turning down billions in federal tax dollars and leaving several hundred thousand people without coverage. She compared full expansion to the budget decisions being made now and said full expansion would be a better return on investment.

State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, pointed to the tax cut for top earners that lawmakers passed in 2018 with the expectation of a big windfall for the state resulting from a congressional tax overhaul. Experts did predict the windfall, but Gov. Nathan Deal also suggested that legislators wait until it materialized before cutting taxes. They didn’t wait, and then the windfall didn’t materialize. The state “spent down the money before we actually received it,” Beverly said. If the budget revenue isn’t enough to meet needs, he suggested, the state should take another look at the tax structure. “Income tax represents 53% of the budget in the state of Georgia,” Beverly said. “Why would you slash that and not have any backup?”

A Braselton mother of two, Jennifer LaRose, also sought to reverse cuts to rural health care. Her son, 4, has a condition that caused his colon to grow into his urethra. He has periodic consultations with his doctors to decide how to manage his diet and home care so that he can leave the house like healthy kids do. She told reporters that she has learned from other parents in her support group that if she didn’t live an hour from her son’s care team, he probably couldn’t be in school.

Concern about the cuts isn’t just for Democrats. Some Republican lawmakers have also voiced worry, calling them “life-robbing.”

All sides say they are working for health care, not partisan fighting.

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