X

Georgia legislators return this week with budget cuts on their plate

Georgia State Capitol. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Georgia State Capitol. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia lawmakers have spent the first month of the 2020 session raising concerns about Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposal to pare state spending.

This week the governor will get their response.

The House budget committee will vote Tuesday on Kemp’s plan to cut $200 million from this year’s budget, rewriting it to include funding for its priorities and likely reducing some of the governor’s. The full House is expected to follow with a vote the next day, sending it on to the Senate.

Coming back from a budget-review recess, legislators this week also could take up issues such as sports betting and taxes on vaping.

The House vote on the midyear budget will mark the first major legislative move to rewrite Kemp's proposal, which cuts spending from select areas 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.

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.

Kemp ordered state agencies in August to prepare plans for 4% budget cuts this fiscal year and 6% next year, which begins July 1.

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

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. That will likely be an area of attention for the House: adding back some of the jobs Kemp's proposal cuts.

Considering the tension between Kemp and the House for much of the session, some of the governor’s priorities could also be cut. He will find out Tuesday, when the House releases its budget rewrite.

With the break over, lawmakers also have a full week of chamber and committee votes and hearings coming.

Legislation may be filed this week aimed at letting Georgians bet on sporting events. Other lawmakers are advocating for placing a vote on this fall’s ballot to allow for casinos and betting on horse racing.

Sports betting is being promoted by Atlanta's major sports franchises. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll last month showed support for the idea, with 57% backing it, about 37% opposed, and the rest either undecided or not wanting to answer.

The House Retirement Committee will take up a measure that teacher groups are watching closely.

House Bill 109 has been rewritten a good bit, but as it was presented earlier this month, new teachers in the future would not be able to count sick leave toward their pension, something that can add $1,000 or more a year to their retirement checks. In addition, cost-of-living pension increases — which are 3% annually — would be tacked on once a year. Currently, retirees get 1.5% increases twice a year. Changing it to a once-a-year increase would save the system $17 million annually.

HB 109 was initially a broader effort to rein in teacher pension system costs, but the measure was scaled back after angry educators flooded lawmakers with emails and calls.

A subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee will consider a bill that would impose a 7% excise tax on vaping devices and products.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will consider legislation aimed at keeping Georgians who receive medical care from getting hit with unexpected expenses when their bills arrive. Similar legislation addressing surprise billing is also making its way through the House.

The House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee is expected to vote on legislation that would require someone transporting hemp to carry a license. The bill is a follow-up to last year's measure that legalized the cultivation of hemp in Georgia.

Staff writer Maya Prabhu contributed to this article.

LEGISLATIVE COVERAGE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the largest team covering Georgia's Legislature and offers expertise on issues that matter to taxpayers. Get complete daily coverage during the legislative session at www.ajc.com/politics.