Kemp’s budget director tells Georgia House leaders that spending cuts weren’t “done haphazardly”

July 11, 2019 Atlanta : The United States and State of Georgia flags flew half-staff at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday July 11, 2019 after Governor Kemp signed an executive order in memory of Hall County deputy Nicolas Dixon who was shot and killed. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

It wasn’t exactly a Kumbaya moment, but Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget director apologized to House appropriations leaders Tuesday for not being more forthcoming about proposed spending cuts the last time he was before them at the Capitol.

House members have complained that Office of Planning and Budget  Director Kelly Farr and many agency directors have been evasive at the same time Kemp is asking many agencies to cut 4% this year and 6% next year.

Farr met with House budget-writers for more than an hour Tuesday to explain the thinking behind Kemp’s budget plan.

“I cannot tell you how encouraged I am about this dialogue,” said House Appropriations Vice Chairman Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn. “It’s much better than a monologue.”

Basic funding for education, Medicaid and transportation programs were exempt from Kemp’s cuts. Cutting what is left would save the state about $200 million this year and $300 million in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

The biggest chunk of that - $70 million a year - would come from eliminating about 1,200 vacant positions in state government.

Lawmakers say the state needs to fill many of those vacant jobs - from Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab techs to Department of Agriculture food inspectors.

They also hinted that the House may seek more money to raise pay for some of the hard-to-fill jobs - such as juvenile justice guards.

Kemp's budget includes funding to give state employees who earn less than $40,000 a $1,000 pay raise, although not all of them will get the full raise. 

Farr told lawmakers he understands their concerns about the proposed spending reductions.

“When you take money away, it is going to change people’s perspectives and priorities,” he said. “This was not done haphazardly.”

Kemp and House leaders have been at odds since shortly after he announced in August that he wanted to cut spending in order to prepare for a potential economic slowdown, and to pay for his top priorities, such as the $2,000 teacher raise he recommended in January.

Lawmakers noted that Kemp kept state agency directors away from budget hearings to talk about proposed cuts last fall, and said that more recently some agency directors have down-played the impact of the spending reductions.

Farr defended Kemp's proposals, saying, for instance, that the state has increased funding for things like mental health and substance abuse services. He said proposed cuts to the mental health agency pared back some of the increased spending legislators approved last year.

Legislators have voiced concerns about $15 million in cuts to county health department grants. But Farr said counties will be getting a bigger share of the taxes the state collects when Georgians buy cars, and that maybe local governments could chip in a little more for public health services.

Pirkle said that idea sounded like an “unfunded mandate” on counties to spend more on local health programs the state has paid for in the past.

Legislators have complained about cuts to the agriculture Cooperative Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station, two programs near and dear to lawmakers from rural Georgia. Farr told them the college that runs the programs has a growing reserve that could help mitigate the cuts.

Farr answered more general concerns about cuts to rural programs by saying small-town Georgia would get a huge boost from Kemp’s plan to raise teacher pay by $2,000 next year. Farr said about $194 million worth of pay raises would go to rural school district teachers.

“In a lot of places in rural  Georgia, the biggest employer in that community is the school system,” he noted.

One of the areas targeted for elimination of vacant jobs is in the juvenile detention system.

Rep. Andrew J. Welch, R-McDonough, chairman of the budget subcommittee over public safety, said the system has a huge turnover rate for “secure personnel” such as guards.

Many are paid less than $30,000 a year, and he suggested the state consider raising pay to make it easier to fill those jobs.

Farr responded, “People don’t come to state government to get rich and they don’t leave because they are not getting rich. They typically come because they have a heart of service.”

After listening to several more subcommittee chairmen and chairwomen  express concerns about cuts, Farr said, “I realize a cut is a cut and it’s difficult to take no matter how it is rationalized or not rationalized.”

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