Fort Gaines, Georgia HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Kemp’s budget spurs many questions about its impact on rural Georgia

During three days of Capitol budget hearings last week, the same question kept coming up: How are Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget cuts going to affect rural Georgia?

How will they affect meat inspections and marketing of farm products at a time when Hurricane Michael and trade wars have hurt the state’s top industry, agriculture?

How will they affect programs to get more doctors to small-town Georgia?

How will they affect health departments in remote counties with no doctors?

How will they affect programs to spur the economy of rural Georgia?

Lawmakers have spent the past few years making it a priority to boost rural Georgia, pouring millions of dollars into efforts to help a part of the state that voted overwhelmingly for Kemp for governor in 2018.

Now they are wondering what will become of their work after much of what they championed was slated by Kemp and agency heads to be trimmed back as the governor tries to balance a shaky state budget and keep his campaign promise to raise teacher pay.

“Rural Georgia is going to feel the pain of this,” said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “Rural Georgia is going to get killed.”

Small-town lawmakers who dominate the budget committees in the General Assembly expressed particular concern about Kemp’s proposed reduction to several health care initiatives — such as loan forgiveness programs for rural health care professionals and funding for public health departments — that they say are vital to their constituents.

“Many of the programs the General Assembly has worked on over the last several years in trying to address the (health care) workforce shortage in rural Georgia … all of them seem to be offered up for cuts,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. “It seems like these are things that are taking the brunt of the cuts.”

Kemp’s office said in some cases, federal or local funding may be available to fill holes, and that the governor put an emphasis on increasing funding for broader K-12 school and Medicaid programs that will benefit rural Georgians.

“Governor Kemp is committed to keeping rural Georgia strong by using innovative ways to spur economic growth, improve educational opportunities and ensure bright futures for Georgia families,” said his spokeswoman, Candice Broce.

“The governor’s budget fully funds Quality Basic Education for Georgia students, includes a $2,000 educator pay raise for a combined $5,000, invests in critically important infrastructure initiatives and provides much-needed resources to improve health care access and quality across the Peach State.”

With tax collections slowing, Kemp last year told agencies to plan for 4% budget cuts this year and 6% in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1, in order to both guard against a possible economic slowdown and pay for his priorities, including higher teacher pay.

Much of the state budget was exempt, so under his proposed budget, some of the areas that were not spared now face big cuts. But now it’s the turn of lawmakers to rewrite his plan, and their interest quickly turned to what they didn’t like about the spending reductions affecting rural Georgia.

Doing something to change the decades-long pattern of struggling small-town Georgia economies has been a top priority at the Capitol, particularly among members of the House in recent years. With House Speaker David Ralston’s strong support, lawmakers have put taxpayer money behind their ideas, even creating in Tifton a Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation (which would take a $100,000 budget cut next year under Kemp’s proposal).

The governor’s budget plan would eliminate funding for a rural water association and a rural health innovation program, cut money for loan repayment awards for health care professionals working in rural Georgia, for medical malpractice insurance assistance for doctors working in rural Georgia, to a rural surgery initiative, to doctor training programs that helped prepare more physicians to work in rural Georgia, and for several other medical programs.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told lawmakers he wouldn’t be able to fill vacant food safety inspector and agriculture marketing positions, meaning, among other things, fewer meat inspections.

That brought a response from state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, during last week’s budget hearings.

“Should our citizens be concerned about food safety?” she asked. “When you talk about food inspections and meat inspections are going to be fewer and farther between, what is our obligation to the public if we are going to do this?”

Proposed cuts that were near the top of rural lawmakers’ lists: those to county public health departments and to the Cooperative Extension Service and agricultural experiment stations.

Funding for county health departments would be reduced by $6.4 million this year and $9.24 million next year.

“The front line of health care in rural Georgia is your county health department,” said House Appropriations Vice Chairman Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn. “There are many counties in this great state that don’t have a doctor, but every one of them has a county health department.”

Kemp’s office said it has talked with district health directors and “intends to work with them diligently to ensure reductions will result in minimal impact of services.”

The agricultural experiment stations and the Cooperative Extension Service — which are part of the University System of Georgia budget — would see reductions of about $7.6 million next year under the governor’s budget plan.

But state Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, a farmer who says he talks to his local ag extension agent every day at certain times of the year, said his industry can’t afford to lose the expertise and research-based advice the organizations’ staffers provide.

“That is the only thing that has gotten (farmers) through the hurricanes, the disasters, the trade wars and allowed them to be more efficient and effective,” Watson said.

University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley promised to work with lawmakers to avoid or mitigate the cuts to the two programs.

“I am very committed to them,” he said. “I believe in them, and they continue to make a difference across the state.”

Kemp’s office said his budget recommended, for the most part, that the agencies maintain their current staffing levels, not filling about two dozen vacancies. It also directs the agencies to use their large reserves to fund numerous positions.

Beverly, the House minority caucus chairman, said the series of cuts to rural programs shows small-town Georgians have been misled.

“It is our job to let folks know that, here is a governor who said one thing, who you voted for, but who is not helping you,” Beverly said. “He’s hurting you.”

Kemp staffers disagreed, noting several initiatives in the governor’s proposed budget, including extra money for isolated schools, an increase in money for park/green space acquisition, more funding for lab equipment to test rural water systems, extra money to maintain farmers markets and renovate the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter in Perry, and increased funding for bridge replacements in rural Georgia.

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