Georgia House leaders say ‘no’ to many of Gov. Kemp’s budget cuts

Six months after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered state agencies to cut spending, House leaders reacted Tuesday by backing a midyear budget that restores funding for everything from public health grants, mental health services and efforts to train doctors to agriculture research and court programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

But after months of hand-wringing over the impact of Kemp’s proposed spending cuts, House budget writers also added $250,000 to refit cars on a short-line tourist excursion train in southwest Georgia.

In general, the House pushed back on many of the proposed cuts that would impact small-town Georgia, a key constituency in a chamber largely run by lawmakers from outside metro Atlanta.

The House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to make major changes to Kemp’s proposal to cut $200 million in this year’s budget. The full chamber will vote Wednesday, and then it will be the Senate’s turn to tweak the spending plan.

Next up for both will be Kemp’s $28.1 billion 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.

The votes Tuesday came after the House and Senate took a week-and-a-half-long break from this year’s session to review Kemp’s proposals.

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.

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.

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 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.

House budget writers made preliminary changes last week, deciding to restore money to fund more food safety inspectors in the Department of Agriculture and to ensure staffers at the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, don’t have to take days off without pay.

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.

Budget writers also added money for a local project or two, something that was more prevalent in the 1990s and 2000s before the Great Recession,

They included $250,000 for the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority for the Historic SAM Railroad, where people can ride in vintage train cars that run from Cordele to the area around Plains, home of former President Jimmy Carter.