Gov. Brian Kemp told the Georgia House and Senate Appropriations committees that his budget for fiscal 2021, calling for a 6% reduction in spending, “doesn’t require drastic cuts to other agency activities.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Follow Up: Georgia gov says cuts shouldn’t mean ‘drastic’ change

Kemp: Reductions don’t mean big impact on agencies’ activities

Gov. Brian Kemp opened budget hearings this week by saying the spending cuts he ordered should not make a big impact on state government services.

“The budget before you shows reducing costs doesn’t require drastic cuts to other agency activities,” Kemp told members of the state House and Senate Appropriations committees.

Kemp in August directed state agencies to reduce spending by 4% this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and 6% next year. And the hunt was on.

The governor said the state was able to save millions of dollars through tactics such as consolidating services, cutting overtime and administration, and reducing real estate leases. His budget also would make about 1,200 vacant jobs disappear.

Kemp’s aim in ordering the cuts was to save about $200 million this fiscal year and $300 million next year. That would give him flexibility to fund his priorities, such as a $2,000 raise for public school teachers, while also serving as a hedge against a possible economic downturn. He was also dealing with slow tax collections in 2019.

While the governor got a little flexibility, he didn’t leave any room in his budget for lawmakers who want to follow up a 2018 cut in the state’s top income tax rate with another cut this year. Reducing the rate from the current 5.75% to 5.5% would cost the state about $500 million to $550 million in lost revenue. Supporters of a tax cut would have to find that money through other reductions in spending.

As for the cuts outlined in Kemp’s budget, it was left to others to explain to legislators what they could mean for various agencies.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said the impact on his agency could be felt at the kitchen table because “there will be fewer food safety inspections … and fewer animal safety inspections.”

Some good news came from an unexpected source.

Back in September, Jeffrey Dorfman, the state’s fiscal economist, told House and Senate budget-writers that the state was looking at a 50-50 chance of a mild recession this year.

He was much sunnier this week.

Said Dorfman: “There is pretty much zero chance we are in a recession now and not close to one.”

Judges question cuts to accountability courts

Some judges have raised concerns over $2.2 million in cuts to accountability courts in Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget.

When Nathan Deal was governor, he made expanding use of the courts a key part of an overhaul of Georgia’s criminal justice system. That overhaul has been credited with saving taxpayers money by cutting prison spending, reducing the number of black inmates and boosting treatment programs for nonviolent offenders.

The courts are geared to drug addicts, veterans and the mentally ill who have mostly been charged with nonviolent or low-level offenses, directing them toward help and away from prisons.

A recent University of Georgia study quantified their success. It found that the roughly 1,700 people who graduated from accountability courts in 2017 saved the state nearly $5,000 per person when compared with the cost of incarceration. And those who went through the process were at least 10% less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system than those who did not pass through the accountability courts.

“When we talk about cutting funding for accountability courts, it’s not simply cutting programs that we know work and reduce recidivism,” said Steven Teske, the chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County. “We’re talking about cutting funds that save taxpayer dollars.”

Kemp has cast the cut to the courts as part of a broader effort to streamline government, and his aides noted that last year he tried to add $4.3 million to accountability courts but was blocked by state lawmakers.

Less in fees, more in funding. Huh?

Georgia’s tire and landfill fees will decrease July 1, but more money could be available for environmental cleanup. What economic voodoo is this?

It’s pretty simple, really. The fees meant to benefit the state’s Hazardous Waste and Solid Waste trust funds would, under Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget, actually be spent on their intended purpose.

That hasn’t been standard practice since 2009, when the nation’s and state’s economies were the fiscal equivalent of a tire fire. Since then, the state has diverted about $150 million in fee money to the general fund.

In fiscal 2021, though, Kemp’s budget calls for the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund to see its funding rise from $4 million to $8.3 million. The Solid Waste Trust Fund would get a bump from $2.79 million to $2.81 million.

Meanwhile, the $1 fee that Georgians pay when they replace a tire will fall to 38 cents. The solid waste disposal fee will drop from 75 cents per ton to 51 cents.

Kemp adds money to fight sex harassment 

While Gov. Brian Kemp has concentrated on sharpening his budget-cutting ax, he did find something he thinks is deserving of more money, the state’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

It’s been a concern of the governor from the start. Last year, on his first day in office, Kemp made State Inspector General Deborah Wallace the go-to person on the issue.

Now, his fiscal 2021 budget would add $435,182 in funding for Wallace’s office to add five positions. Kemp also wants to add $250,00 to the agency’s budget for this fiscal year.

The money is aimed at meeting demand. Since March, Wallace’s office has recorded nearly 150 complaints from government offices from across the state.

Panel requires more voting machines

The State Election Board voted to require more voting machines for this year’s presidential election, but not as many as mandated by a law Georgia legislators approved last year.

The law requires one voting booth for every 250 voters in each precinct. Election officials say they will likely seek a change to the law during this legislative session.

The board’s new plan would make an adjustment tied to early voting. It would require county election officials to account for early voters when deciding how many voting machines are needed on Election Day. One voting machine would be available for every 250 registered voters who didn’t vote early. About half of Georgia voters cast their ballots ahead of Election Day.

During the 2018 election for governor, voters in some metro Atlanta precincts waited more than three hours to cast their votes. The lines, caused by heavier-than-expected turnout and an inadequate number of voting machines, contributed to an ongoing federal lawsuit over obstacles to voting in Georgia.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the chairman of the State Elections Board, warned that more than 5 million of the state’s 7.1 million voters are expected to turn out for November’s election.

Kemp reveals plans targeting human trafficking

With victims of sex trafficking at their side, Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife, Marty, promoted legislation to combat the crime.

One part would require people convicted of some trafficking crimes to register as sex offenders. Another proposal would ban convicted sex traffickers from holding a commercial driver’s license if he or she was convicted of using a commercial vehicle to commit the offense.

A third part would make it easier for victims to restrict access to their criminal records or secure a judicial order that sets aside judgments issued for the wrongly convicted. Marty Kemp said it would deliver a “much needed fresh start to those who need it most.”

Carrying the legislation are three Republican lawmakers representing politically competitive districts: state Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens, state Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth and state Sen. Brian Strickland of Stockbridge.

Bill takes aim at hair discrimination

New legislation would address how hairstyles might be treated at work, school or when seeking housing.

Senate Bill 286 would ban discrimination in areas such as employment based on how a person wears his or her hair.

Race plays a role, said supporters of Senate Bill 286, especially if a black person is wearing their hair naturally or in braids or dreadlocks.

“This disproportionately affects black women,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, who worked on the legislation with its sponsor, state Sen. Tonya Anderson of Lithonia. “We should not be confined to adjusting to certain norms with our hair just so we can feel comfortable or safe.”

STAT OF THE WEEK

1,189

What is it? That’s how many refugees resettled in Georgia during the last fiscal year. Up from the 837 the year before.

Where did they come from? The five countries that produced the largest numbers of refugees who resettled in Georgia were Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Myanmar and Ukraine.

Why is it relevant? At least 42 states have said they would continue to allow refugees to resettle in their communities, while at least one state, Texas, said it would not. They were responding to a Trump administration order that required resettlement agencies to obtain written consent by this past Tuesday from mayors, county leaders and governors before placing refugees in those communities. A federal judge then put a temporary hold on the order. Georgia never declared what it would do, one way or the other.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“You don’t just call yourself the technology capital. You’ve got to earn it.” — Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, speaking about plans to beef up “smart” technology on Georgia roads, including the installation of 1,000 more stoplights in metro Atlanta that communicate directly with vehicles, telling them, for instance, when a light is about to turn green.

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