Some programs dear to rural Georgia lawmakers in planned budget cuts

University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Some areas of the University System of Georgia’s budget that are near and dear to the small-town lawmakers who dominate the General Assembly — from farm research to libraries — are being targeted for millions of dollars in cuts under plans developed to meet Gov. Brian Kemp’s call to reduce spending.

Kemp has ordered state agencies to develop proposals to cut their budgets 4% this fiscal year and 6% in fiscal 2021, which begins next July 1.

The biggest chunk of the University System’s budget is exempted from those cuts — the part that goes to run Georgia’s colleges and universities.

But almost two-dozen areas of the system’s budget, including so-called “attached agencies” such as the Georgia Military College and Georgia Public Broadcasting, would be hit.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to get a briefing Tuesday on the system’s plans to cut $27.6 million this year and next to meet Kemp’s requirement. The system responded to requests for comment or explanation by saying only that the Regents will consider the proposal Tuesday. The governor’s office noted that any proposed cuts are subject to review by Kemp and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.

At a time when Kemp and legislative leaders are emphasizing the struggling economy of rural Georgia, the system is proposing $4.7 million in cuts to the Agricultural Experiment Station, $4.4 million to the Cooperative Extension Service, $300,000 in forestry research and $4 million for public libraries, which are especially important to rural Georgia because they provide access to internet service.

“Rural Georgia and agriculture are very important to this state,” said Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, who is chairwoman of the economic development budget subcommittee. “These cuts the Regents are proposing, they hit rural Georgia real hard.”

Because high-speed internet service is nonexistent or too expensive in rural Georgia, Houston said libraries provide many locals with their only good connections, helping, for instance, students complete homework.

The House Rural Development Council, a group of legislators trying to find ways to boost the economies of rural areas, will be meeting in Moultrie about the same time the Board of Regents is reviewing the reduction targets.

Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, a farmer who is co-chairman of the council, said if every part of the budget is taking a cut, he understands reductions in areas like the Cooperative Extension Service.

But he added, “We have a lot of momentum right now for rural Georgia, and we don’t want to hurt that. Those are very effective (programs) and there is a lot of good that comes from them and a lot of lives are impacted.”

Other areas targeted include Georgia Public Broadcasting, which would take a $1.5 million reduction, and Medical College of Georgia Hospitals and Clinics, which could lose $4 million.

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.

Last month the Department of Community Health board voted to cut more than $10 million in administrative costs, and officials said they couldn't rule out job cuts.

The Department of Human Services, which handles child and elder abuse investigations and social service programs like food stamps, proposed $46 million in cuts, including eliminating more than 200 vacant jobs or those where attrition will create openings.

Kemp won office in 2018 promising a leaner state government, and he wants to have enough money to fund his priorities, such as another big pay raise for teachers. He won largely because of overwhelming support in rural Georgia.

While the administration isn’t seeing flashing red warning signs on the economy, the governor and his staff have been cautious about how they deal with state finances.

The Kemp administration's budget directive came only a few months after it cut spending by suspending for a month contributions into the State Health Benefit Plan, which provides health coverage for more than 660,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their dependents. The one-month "holiday" saved state agencies and school districts about $235 million.

The move was made because administration officials wanted to make sure the state was able to make its budget for fiscal 2019, which ended June 30.

Good economy or bad, the administration also faces higher costs as school and health care program enrollments continue to rise.

Kemp said the state would begin withholding money from agencies starting Oct 1.

House and Senate leaders reacted to the governor's call for cuts by announcing a joint legislative budget hearing later this month. The governor's office has made it clear it doesn't want state agencies sending lawmakers their budget plans or attending the hearings.