Kemp releases new revenue estimate, seeks reduction in school cuts

Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday proposed reducing tens of millions of dollars in spending cutbacks that lawmakers have been considering, in part by using reserve funds to bolster the state’s bottom line.

Kemp’s new revenue estimate comes as state lawmakers are racing to pass a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The General Assembly concludes its 2020 session — delayed by the coronavirus pandemic — on Friday.

Based on Kemp's earlier estimates, the Georgia Senate last week approved a budget that cut about $2.6 billion in spending — including more than $1 billion for k-12 schools.

Kemp is still projecting that the state will see a dramatic economic impact from the coronavirus recession, but his latest estimate calls for a $2.2 billion decline in revenue next year, with the budget propped up by $250 million from the state reserve.

The governor recommended dropping the reduction to basic school funding by $53 million and having university and technical colleges take a 10% cut instead of 11%, as they’d expected. The same is true for the rest of state government.

If his recommendations are approved, it would mean tens of millions of dollars more in funding for schools and colleges than they’d expected.

“To keep Georgia moving in the right direction and minimize the long-term impact of COVID-19 on our classrooms, I strongly recommend that we continue to prioritize public school education and find ways to support our educators as they continue to serve in communities throughout Georgia,” Kemp said.

The governor also recommended that lawmakers approve $15 million to establish a grant program to pay for better training for state and local law enforcement, and $2.47 million for a new state trooper class in the upcoming year.

“We must remember that Georgia’s future hinges on the safety and security of our citizens,” he said. “During this health care crisis, we have seen law enforcement officers play a vital role in the fight against COVID-19. We must stand with law enforcement now — just like they stood with us during the pandemic.”

Kemp also recommended lawmakers approve borrowing an additional $139 million for maintenance and repair work at state facilities, state-owned railroads and bridges to address infrastructure needs.

The budget approved by the Senate already included about $1 billion in borrowing for construction projects, much of it for schools and colleges.

Even with Kemp’s new estimates, agencies and schools will feel the pinch from reduced state spending.

“I do not make the above recommendations lightly, and I recognize the difficult decisions that these reductions represent for state agencies, higher education institutions and k-12 schools,” the governor said. “However, I am confident that our agency leaders can identify and implement innovative, cost-saving solutions to craft a balanced budget without undermining their mission or services.”

The pandemic brought record unemployment, and thousands of businesses either closed or still struggle to remain open. That, in turn, has sent state tax collections — mostly for income and sales taxes — plummeting.

Because lawmakers expect less revenue, they face cutting funding for everything from k-12 schools and universities to the Georgia State Patrol, food safety inspections, highway construction, mental health and substance abuse programs, and county health departments.

Under budget plans that agencies submitted last month, more than 1,000 filled jobs would be eliminated and tens of thousands of state employees would be furloughed.

In May, budget writers told state agencies they'd have to cut 14%. Kemp told them in June the number would be 11%. A few weeks later it is 10%.

Georgia House and Senate negotiators are currently working to come up with an agreement before the session ends Friday.