Georgia Senate Republican budget-writers raised the possibility that instead of furloughing state employees to meet planned spending cuts they might require staffers to work the same number of hours for less pay.
Under furloughs — which were used extensively during the Great Recession — employees take days off without pay.
The issue came up Tuesday during the first live committee hearings at the Capitol — conducted by an education subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee — since mid-March. The 2020 session was suspended then because of the coronavirus pandemic.
During two budget hearings Tuesday, almost all the senators and the agency heads who presented live before subcommittees wore masks.
Lawmakers will restart their 2020 session next month.
The leaders of the House and Senate budget committees and the Office of Planning and Budget sent letters to state agencies May 1 requesting plans to cut spending 14% — or more than $3.5 billion — in the upcoming fiscal year because of the coronavirus recession.
A report on state tax collections for April that came out a few days later showed why. They were down $1 billion from April 2019 as businesses shut down and unemployment hit record levels.
More than 1,000 filled jobs would be eliminated, and tens of thousands of state employees would be furloughed under budget plans submitted last week.
Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, a member of the subcommittee, raised the idea of pay cuts for teachers rather than furloughing them after the head of the agency that provides pre-kindergarten classes to more than 80,000 4-year-olds said budget reductions would mean fewer slots for children and fewer days of instructions.
By cutting pay rather than furloughing teachers, Stone said, “You are just not penalizing the public. The reduction in compensation is the same regardless of whether it’s furlough days or a temporary reduction in the pay scale.”
Sen. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta, who heads the education subcommittee, suggested a "special deduction" from the salary of pre-kindergarten teachers rather than having them take days off without pay.
“If we follow through on this, they (teachers) are going to get less money and children are going to get less education,” Black said. “The question is, how dedicated are these teachers? Are they willing to make that much of a sacrifice so these kids can get an education?”
But Amy Jacobs, the head of the pre-k agency, said teachers wouldn’t like the idea.
“I can’t imagine a pre-kindergarten teacher or any teacher for that matter would think favorably to that if they are required to work the same number of days but receiving less pay,” she said.
Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, made it clear her party wouldn't back the idea.
“Let’s call this what it is: Republicans would rather cut pay for teachers and law enforcement in the middle of the pandemic than pass common sense solutions like closing tax loopholes or fully expand Medicaid,” Williams said.
Black said all school agencies may not have to take the full 14% cut, while other agencies may be cut more than 14%.
The spending reductions would mean about $1.5 billion less for Georgia’s k-12 schools, possibly leading to teacher furloughs, property tax increases and shorter school days in some districts.
“I am very much opposed to across-the-board cuts,” Black said. “I think we need to make cuts based on needs.”
By the time lawmakers are ready to pass a budget in June, he added, “Hopefully, we won’t have cuts as draconian as we are looking at.”
Jacobs said if she has to cut 14% from all programs, she would reduce the number of instruction days from 180 to 167. Planning days for teachers would also be cut, so they would be furloughed 19 days. Teachers would lose 10% of their pay through the furloughs.
The agency would also eliminate a program that pays child care providers to watch the children of low-income families before and after school.
After Stone suggested cutting pay for teachers but asking them to work the same hours, Black noted that lawmakers would be considering a bill during the re-started session to cut their own pay.
Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, another member of the subcommittee, said if teachers are expected to work for less money, legislators would have to apply such measures across the board.
“Prison guards, are you going to give them a pay cut and expect them to show up every day?” he asked.
The money to fund pre-k programs comes from the lottery, which has not seen the kind of big decline the state has seen from income and sales taxes during the pandemic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported two weeks ago that lottery sales were strong during April and early May.
Jacobs noted that lottery-funded education programs have more than $1 billion in reserves that could be tapped.
At another hearing, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said his agency’s budget plan would cut about 70 positions - some filled, some currently vacant. Included were jobs in agriculture and food safety inspections.
Lawmakers balked early this year at a budget proposal by Gov. Brian Kemp to cut vacant food inspector jobs, in part because of an increase in the number of stores inspectors have to review.
Black also noted five of the state’s farmers markets - including those in Savannah, Augusta and Macon - would be closed.
“It is unrealistic to suggest this plan will not effect services,” he told senators.