Georgia House leaders cut teacher pay raise in half, ease Kemp spending reductions

Georgia House leaders pushed back hard on Gov. Brian Kemp’s spending cuts Monday, backing a $28 billion budget that ignores many of his proposed reductions and slashes his plan for a $2,000 teacher pay raise in half.

The House Appropriations Committee on Monday approved the budget plan for fiscal 2021, which starts July 1.

The chamber’s leaders added 2% pay raises for state employees and an additional 2%-5% in several areas where low salaries have made it difficult to keep staffers, from food safety inspectors and prison guards to mental health workers.

“I am proud that the House budget maintains critical services and rewards the hard work of all of our public employees in Georgia,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Teachers would get a $1,000 pay raise, under the House plan, rather than the $2,000 Kemp proposed.

“We all appreciate the job they do,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. “We understand it is going to be a disappointment to some.”

But House leaders said money was needed to “back fill” services throughout state government that the governor proposed to cut.

“We are charged with taking care of all 10.7 million Georgians,” England said.

Kemp ordered state agencies in August to cut their budgets 4% this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and 6% next year to both prepare for a potential economic slowdown and pay for his priorities, such as the teacher pay raise.

But he did so without the backing of House and Senate leaders, and they didn’t support many of the cuts he recommended.

Through the state’s budget, taxpayers help educate 2 million children, provide health care to more than 2 million Georgians, build roads and bridges, manage parks, investigate crimes and incarcerate criminals, and regulate insurance firms and utilities, along with dozens of professions. The state issues driver’s licenses and helps pay for nursing home care for the elderly.

The budget is a statement of the state’s priorities — for instance, in issuing his spending cuts edict, Kemp exempted k-12 schools, most college programs, the public health care program Medicaid, and the agency that builds and maintains roads and bridges. Those areas make up more than 75% of state spending.

Passage of his proposed $2,000 teacher raise would allow Kemp, in less than two years, to fulfill one of his top 2018 campaign pledges — to give the state’s more than 100,000 public school educators a $5,000 raise.

Lawmakers approved a $3,000 raise last year.

Craig Harper, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher group, said, “Forward progress on this issue is essential to maintaining highly qualified educators in schools and classrooms.

“We understand that lawmakers are juggling many difficult and worthwhile budget priorities,” he said. “We strongly recommend that policymakers prioritize the full raise as budget negotiations move through the legislative process.”

The $2,000 raise Kemp proposed would cost the state about $350 million.

The House instead used half of the money to fund its budget priorities

Much of the money Kemp hoped to save from budget cuts would come by eliminating vacant jobs. The AJC reported in December that the administration planned to wipe off the books about 1,200 positions.

Under Kemp’s spending proposal, those positions would include Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors and marketing staff, child welfare and program eligibility workers, agricultural extension employees, GBI lab scientists and technicians, juvenile justice security staff, and workers to help veterans make sure they receive the benefits they earn.

The House agreed to eliminate some vacant positions, but restored funding for others.

Kemp also proposed cutting county health department grants and reductions in spending for several public health and mental health, and rural programs. The House balked at those reductions and restored much of the money the governor wanted to cut.

Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, the House health care budget chairman, said, “Many of the changes (in the House budget) have been to restore cuts to programs the House and Senate have worked hard on over the last several years to build up with a goal that all Georgians share access to quality health care.”

The House also added money to pay to expand Medicaid from two to six months following the birth of a child for low-income women. It added money for more assisted living inspectors following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that found numerous problems with the state's system of making sure seniors living in assisted living homes are safe.

House members also put more money into the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime labs to make sure rape kit and DNA testing aren’t delayed.

The House cut in half the state’s funding of Invest Georgia, a venture capital fund that was a pet project of former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Lawmakers said they hadn’t received information they requested on whether the program was a success.

House leaders are also responding to Kemp’s handling of the budget cuts last fall. Ralston said leaders will back legislation putting limits on the governor’s ability to withhold spending approved by the General Assembly, as he did with the mid-year cuts. Legislation would also require state agencies to give the House and Senate its budget proposals in September and create a board of economic advisers to give the General Assembly input in setting the annual revenue estimate.

Currently, the governor sets the revenue estimate, which determines how much money lawmakers can spend.

Kemp would likely veto any legislation that takes away a governor’s ability to withhold spending or have the General Assembly be involved in setting revenue estimates.