Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia public health agency among those proposing to furlough staff

While Georgia’s Department of Public Health is battling the coronavirus pandemic, its leaders say it will have to furlough staffers — including those working in infectious disease control and epidemiology — one day a month to meet state-mandated spending cuts.

The agency would also slash grants to county health departments by almost $18 million and cut a host of other programs, according to budget plans obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The massive University System of Georgia would eliminate or hold vacant more than 2,000 jobs, including 735 filled positions, with some at Georgia State University being offered buyouts. Many agencies would force employees to take days off without pay — ranging from a few days to almost nine weeks. K-12 school funding would be cut by about $1.5 billion, most of it money that goes to local school systems.

State agencies this week turned in plans detailing how they will meet the mandated 14% spending cuts for the upcoming fiscal year — which beings July 1.

The goal is to cut more than $3.5 billion in spending. State lawmakers will return in June to pass a budget for the new fiscal year. They will have to decide which proposals to accept and which to reject. Agency plans turned in this week are only the starting point.

The economic shutdown brought on by the pandemic has led to mass unemployment, and some businesses remain closed. Many of those that have opened are doing limited business.

Because of that, state tax collections have plummeted.

The state provides all or part of the money to fund paychecks for between 200,000 and 300,000 teachers, university staffers and state workers in dozens of agencies — from agriculture and transportation to schools, courts, prisons and law enforcement.

Much of state government is personnel-heavy. So there is no way to cut $3.5 billion or so without affecting employees. That means furloughs or layoffs.

The AJC had previously reported that the University System of Georgia, Technical College System and the agency that investigates child abuse complaints and signs up Georgians for food stamps and Medicaid were planning to make staffers take days off without pay.

Furloughs were also common for state employees and teachers during the Great Recession a decade ago.

The plans agencies turned in were not complete. Some listed few details.

Cuts to the Department of Public Health are particularly sensitive since it has been so heavily involved in the state’s effort to fight the pandemic.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, has been one of the most prominent faces in the state’s battle to contain the pandemic, appearing with Gov. Brian Kemp at numerous press briefings. Her agency has faced criticism over how it’s reported the extent of the pandemic in Georgia and the amount of — or lack of — testing.

The agency has seldom been at the front of the line when it comes to state funding.

However, even before the pandemic, lawmakers fought back against Kemp’s plans earlier this year to cut public health spending — along with that of most other agencies — to brace for a potential slowdown.

Under the public health agency’s plan to meet the 14% cut, staffers would take 12 furlough days.

The proposal surprised some given the agency’s crucial role in fighting the pandemic.

“I am sorry but what? We need everyone we can working on infectious diseases,” tweeted Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University.

Among the programs that would be reduced are those that work to reduce maternal mortality, treat autism, research cancer, provide feminine hygiene products to poor girls and women and to help fight HIV/AIDS.

Numerous agencies would cut jobs, but in many cases, it is difficult to tell from the plans whether the cuts would be tovacant positions, or result in layoffs. The Department of Revenue said it would cut 92 positions. The Department of Juvenile Justice said it would eliminate hundreds of vacant and part-time positions. The Department of Human Services’ plan would cut jobs in areas such as elder abuse and prevention, although the agency saysno front-line elder abuse case managers would be eliminated.

The Department of Community Health, which runs the state’s Medicaid and insurance program for teachers, university and state employees and retirees, said it would be able to soften the impact of its cuts because of increased federal funding approved by Congress near the beginning of the pandemic.

The Georgia State Patrol said it would furlough officers and other staffers 12 to 24 days next fiscal year. The Attorney General’s Office said staffers would take “at least” one furlough day a month. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation would furlough some staffers two days a month and freeze more than two dozen scientist and lab tech positions.

Many of the cuts will get a close look from lawmakers, who are used to seeing agencies offer spending reductions that they know won’t be palatable. One agency cut money for a rural broadband effort House leaders have pushed for years.

Another slashed grants to fund medical school training at Mercer and Morehouse schools of medicine, a program sacred to lawmakers. Budget-writers, many of whom are from rural Georgia, are also unlikely to support major cuts to agriculture education.

A few agencies asked to be exempt from the cuts, something General Assembly leaders aren’t likely to go along with. One such request came from Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, whose agency has dealt with a tsunami of unemployment claims.

Other agencies made it clear what was at stake with the cuts, such as a proposed $61 million spending reduction for the agency that provides pre-kindergarten classes to Georgia children.

“It is important to note that these reductions will directly impact children, teachers and Pre-K providers,” the agency wrote, saying it, “cannot meet the required reduction without reducing both the school calendar and the number of Pre-K slots for children.

“The reduction of the school calendar will reduce both the salary for lead and assistant teachers and the operating funds for Pre-K providers.”

Danny Kanso, a policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute think tank, urged lawmakers to consider raising revenue by taking steps such as increasing the state’s relatively low cigarette taxes and cutting back on special interest tax breaks.

“These devastating cuts to Georgia’s already-thin budget would set back our state’s recovery process and negatively impact millions of Georgians in every community across our state,” he said. “Layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes will only slow Georgia’s economy and exacerbate the problems underscored by COVID-19.

“Based on current agency proposals, public health departments working hard to combat the virus will lose millions in funding, public schools will be underfunded by $1.5 billion, causing teachers to be furloughed and class sizes to increase and the millions of newly unemployed Georgians seeking to enroll in necessary financial supports will experience longer delays in receiving their benefits.”

Kyle Wingfield, president of the Atlanta-based Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said he expects states to get some more federal aid, and possibly more flexibility in how it spends the coronavirus relief package money approved by Congress in March. Currently that money can’t be used to make up for a shortfall in tax collections, which is what Georgia and other states are facing.

“If they are able to use it in a way to serve the state’s purposes, this could blunt the effect of this a lot,” Wingfield said.

“We would hope when the full picture is really known, that the cuts are not going to be what everybody is fearing. It just looks like it’s going to not turn out to be the doomsday scenario.”

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