Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp at budget hearings earlier this year. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Hundreds of jobs, programs, would be slashed from Georgia budget

Hundreds of state jobs would be eliminated and positions frozen — from consumer protection staffers and drivers license workers to school safety coordinators — under plans drawn up to meet Gov. Brian Kemp’s demand to cut spending.

Many state programs would be scaled back or eliminated too, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the state Open Records Act. Some of the proposed cuts have trickled out in recent weeks as state agencies worked to meet the governor’s demand to reduce spending.

But taken together, they paint a picture of austerity not seen since the Great Recession, when tens of thousands of teachers and state workers were laid off or furloughed and agencies struggled to provide basic services.

All at a time when a lot of current economic signs point to Georgia’s economy being in pretty good shape overall.

Some of the agency budget plans submitted to the Office of Planning and Budget are vague and will leave the governor with a lot of questions when he meets with department leaders in coming weeks.

Their submissions are the first step in Kemp’s plan to cut 4 percent from most program budgets this fiscal year and 6 percent next year — which begins July 1 — to both prepare the state in case of an economic downturn and provide the money needed to meet his priorities, such as higher teacher pay.

The state is expected to announce Wednesday that tax collections for August fell 2.8 percent, or about $50 million, from August 2018. The state saw up and down revenue collections earlier this year, but the administration was able to increase the state’s rainy day reserves to a record nearly $3 billion when fiscal 2019 ended on June 30.

The Georgia House and Senate are planning budget hearings later this month and officials said the meetings will go forward, despite earlier objections from the Kemp administration, which initially didn’t want to participate. In typical years agencies submit spending proposals to the governor, who reviews them over the fall and makes recommendations to the General Assembly in January.

Kemp surprised lawmakers, and many agency leaders, by calling for budget cuts in August. Allotments to agencies for most programs will be reduced starting Oct. 1.

Not everything will be cut equally across state government. Some massive enrollment-driven programs — such as K-12 schools, universities and Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled — are exempt.

In all, only about 23% of the state-funded portion of the budget was not exempted. Agencies on the hook for cuts include the departments of Agriculture, Corrections, Driver Services, Public Health, public defenders, the Georgia State Patrol, the GBI, most of the Department of Natural Resources, and the administration of K-12 schools and colleges.

About $219 million would be cut this year and $310 million in fiscal 2021.

The new job cuts are a change from recent years, when the state was adding back positions — from social workers to natural resources staffers — eliminated during the Great Recession.

The Department of Agriculture said it would eliminate almost 30 full- and part-time positions in their consumer protection and marketing divisions, but it’s unclear how many will lose their jobs since some of the posts are vacant.

The banking department said it would get rid of four bank examiner positions. The jobs-heavy prisons agency, the Department of Corrections, said it would save about $40 million by freezing vacant positions and limiting overtime. The Department of Corrections, like some other state agencies, has high turnover so much of the money may be saved by not replacing staffers who leave.

The agency also plans to cut spending on some education programs for inmates.

The Department of Driver Services, which issues drivers licenses, said it would save $1.5 million this year by streamlining “operations through position reductions.” The Department of Insurance called it “personnel adjustments.”

Some agencies were more specific. The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency said it would eliminate three school safety coordinators. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations said it would save $700,000 this year by eliminating the jobs of three forensic scientists and two lab techs and delaying hiring. In its investigations division, it would eliminate 12 officers and four staffers. GBI would cut even more jobs in those areas next year.

Local accountability courts, which Kemp’s predecessor Nathan Deal greatly expanded to allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, get treatment, get an education and find a job, would take a $900,000 hit this year and $1.5 million in fiscal 2021. The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunk drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who’ve been charged largely with non-violent crimes and low-level offenses.

The Public Defender Council, which represents criminal defendants unable to pay for their own lawyers, said it would save $1.5 million by furloughing employees without pay for 10 days this year, and next year save $4.1 million by dismantling a program that defends those accused in cases where they face the death penalty.

Grants to local domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centers would be cut $1.3 million over the next two years. The Department of Public Health would cut grants to county health departments by $12.6 million and trauma care would take a $1.67 million hit. The Department of Revenue would reduce “personal services” spending - salaries and benefits for its tax compliance and taxpayer services divisions. War Veterans nursing homes would lose about $1.2 million in funding.

Not all agencies had to submit budget cuts. The Department of Transportation was exempt from cuts and requested higher spending next year.

So did the court system, which is a separate branch of government. Under law, the governor must submit the requests of court agencies to the General Assembly for its consideration. While many agencies are cutting jobs, the court system asked for more positions. The Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, which will soon be moving into a new, $105 million courts building down the street from the Capitol, requested money for IT analysts and for a human resources staffer and a payroll coordinator.

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