Georgia House backs budget sans many of Gov. Kemp’s proposed spending cuts; speaker calls for more tax cuts

The Georgia House backed a mid-year budget Wednesday that rejects or pulls back on many of Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed state spending cuts aimed at saving $200 million.

The plan, which amends the budget for fiscal 2020, which ends June 30, passed 126-46 and now heads to the Senate for its consideration.

Next up for both chambers will be Kemp’s $28.1 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. That proposal includes $300 million in spending cuts — but also pay raises for teachers and state employees earning less than $40,000 a year — and could produce a more contentious fight over state spending.

Kemp ordered state agencies in August to prepare plans for 4% budget cuts this fiscal year and 6% next year to both respond to slow tax collections last year and provide enough money for the governor's priorities, including a $2,000 teacher pay raise and his effort to attack gangs.

About three-fourths of the budget — money that goes to k-12 schools, colleges, the health program Medicaid and transportation — was exempted from reductions.

Under state law, the governor sets the estimate of how much tax money the government is expected to bring in next year. Lawmakers can’t spend more than that, so to make up for things they want to add, they must cut elsewhere.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, told colleagues that budget-writers look for ways to provide state services for less every session.

“Every year we comb this budget looking for efficiencies,” England said.

House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, said lawmakers were having to vote for budget cuts - despite a strong economy - because of the General Assembly's decision in 2018 to cut income taxes. 

“The bad news is we are having to cut when times are good,” Trammell said. “And you know when times are tough again, we will have to cut again.

“Is this the best budget we can do for Georgia? he asked. “We can do better, Georgians deserve better.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said after the vote that he remains committed to cutting the top income tax rate again this session from 5.75% to 5.5%.

“I view that as a commitment we made to the taxpayers of Georgia two years ago,” Ralston told reporters. “I think they expect that Republicans cut taxes.”

House budget writers balanced their plan by cutting vacant positions in the court system and other areas, reducing Kemp’s proposal for some areas of school funding after saying they were using more accurate numbers and eliminating a Department of Corrections electronic health records program that they say hasn’t been implemented. The governor’s office said the $12 million for the program has been used to pay for inmate health care.

A major part of Kemp's savings would come from eliminating about 1,200 vacant state positions, some of which — including crime lab scientists and guards in the juvenile justice system — lawmakers say need to be filled.

England called it “disingenuous” to suggest that eliminating or holding open such jobs wouldn’t impact state services.

House budget writers rejected Kemp's proposal to cut funding to accountability courts. The courts, which were greatly expanded by his predecessor, allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, get treatment, receive an education and find a job. The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunken drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who've been charged largely with nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses and have been highly popular with lawmakers.

The House reduced cuts the governor proposed for the Agriculture Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, two areas of vital interest to rural lawmakers.

The House said no to Kemp’s cuts in funding for Morehouse and Mercer medical schools for preparing doctors, and to his proposed reduction to the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer, a project lawmakers started a few years ago to help improve health care in rural Georgia.

House leaders also reduced cuts that Kemp proposed for mental health, substance abuse treatment, autism treatment and grants to county public health departments, and they eliminated reductions for local library materials.

They also put money into the budget to hire three scientists and two lab technicians at the GBI crime lab, which tests rape kits, DNA and firearms. Lawmakers feared not filling those positions would increase a case backlog. House leaders also rejected cuts to the state's public defenders, who represent indigent defendants in court.