Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston addresses the House of Representatives during the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, January 18, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: REANN HUBER
Photo: REANN HUBER

Georgia House Speaker: Start work now on state budget after governor orders cuts

Summer break's over for budget writers in the Georgia House.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, on Tuesday announced that his chamber's appropriations committee will hold rare fall hearings on the state budget ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

He did so about a week after Gov. Brian Kemp's administration sent a memo to state agencies telling them to offer 4% cuts to their budgets this year and 6 percent in fiscal 2021, which begins next July 1. 

Kemp wants to cut the budget to give him the money he needs to meet his top priorities, including more teacher pay raises.

Ralston and House leaders decided they didn’t want to wait until the 2020 session to deal with what is being proposed. 

“Looking for cuts in an already lean state budget will not be an easy task and will require some difficult decisions regarding service delivery and personnel levels in each state agency,” Ralston said.

"I know that our appropriations committee members will work closely with their counterparts in the Senate, state agency heads, the Governor's Office of Planning & Budget and the governor's staff to ensure thorough, thoughtful discussion of the challenges and opportunities ahead."

Ralston also announced a special Committee on Economic Growth to look at possible regulatory changes needed to attract new businesses to the state. That could include things like casino gambling, sports betting or horse racing, among other potential businesses. 

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, president of the Georgia Senate, said, “The Senate never stops meeting on the budget. It is very common for the chairman, vice chairman and (appropriations) committee members to be in and out of the Senate budget office on a regular basis.”

Ralston said the state has "managed Georgia's finances conservatively over the last decade" while maintaining a top rating for its bonds, which are used to borrow for construction projects. A top bond rating means the state pays lower interest rates on what they borrow. 

"Adjusted for inflation, Georgians still pay less per capita to operate state government than they did before the recession hit in 2007," Ralston said. "What's more, we've invested in rewarding teachers and law enforcement officers, fully funding public education and improving our transportation and mobility infrastructure while also cutting the state's income tax rate." 

When the General Assembly meets in January, it will vote on whether to lower the top state income tax rate from 5.75% to 5.5%. It dropped the top rate from 6% to 5.75% last year.

The Kemp administration's announcement of budget cuts last week was the first since the Great Recession, which hammered state finances and forced lawmakers to slash spending and jobs. Kemp urged agencies to reduce waste and cut duplication in the state's $27.5 billion budget. 

The governor has also called for a cap on state spending that would put limits on budget growth in the future.

Earlier in the month Kemp warned that the state might need to cut spending so he can pay for some of his top priorities, including another big teacher pay hike. This year’s state budget included a $3,000 pay hike for educators, and the governor has promised an additional $2,000 increase during his first term, which ends in January 2023.

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