Gov. Brian Kemp has called on state agencies to reduce spending 4% this fiscal year and 6% next year.

Vacant jobs will be a prime target as Georgia agencies hunt for cuts

In its hunt to find $200 million to cut from this year’s state budget, the Kemp administration will likely wipe about 1,200 vacant jobs off agency books.

Everything from unfilled food safety inspectors to juvenile justice guards and child welfare positions would be eliminated, a purge that administration officials suspect is only a small portion of the vacant positions agencies and the higher education system have in their budgets.

The savings — about $70 million this year and $73 million in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1 — would go a long way toward meeting Gov. Brian Kemp’s call to reduce spending 4% this year and 6% next year.

Administration officials say likely fewer than 50 state employees have been laid off or quit due to Kemp’s call to cut $200 million this year and $300 million in fiscal 2021.

The job cuts could mean little change in the services Georgians use. Or they could mean, for instance, heavier caseloads for child welfare workers and public defenders or longer waits for obtaining driver’s licenses or testing criminal evidence.

Lawmakers may not like all the cuts in vacant jobs, since they’ve appropriated money for higher salaries to make sure hard-to-fill positions — such as child welfare workers and juvenile justice officers — were more attractive in a strong economy for job-seekers.

But Ben Harbin, who served as House appropriations chairman during the Great Recession, said eliminating vacant positions is traditionally one of the first places governors and lawmakers go when the state needs to cut back.

“It’s an easy, common way to do it,” Harbin said. “You haven’t filled the position, so nobody loses a job.”

But that doesn’t mean the cuts are painless to state agencies, some of which are short-staffed because unemployment is low and top workers can often make more working for private businesses.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, whose agency would see 18 vacant positions eliminated, said: “Every one of those are mission-critical positions. Our positions are not coming from some bank of positions where money is being moved around for something else. We run a slim shop.”

Revenue down, so spending is, too

Kemp has seen slow growth in tax collections — in part because lawmakers cut the state income tax rate — since taking office in January.

He announced in August that he wanted agencies to cut back, and as it turned out, with good reason. Tax collections for the first five months of fiscal 2020 are down 0.3% for the year. The $27.5 billion state budget is predicated on about a 3% growth in collections.

Through the state’s budget, taxpayers help educate 2 million children, provide health care to more than 2 million Georgians, build roads and bridges, manage parks, investigate crimes and incarcerate criminals, and regulate insurance firms and utilities, along with dozens of professions. The state issues driver’s licenses and helps fund nursing home care for the elderly.

Employment in state government — excluding the University System of Georgia — has dropped by about 17,000 workers since the year before the Great Recession, many leaving in the early years of the downturn when staffers were laid off, retired early or endured regular furloughs. State government today operates with about 20% fewer workers.

Kemp exempted many of the big-ticket items in the budget: k-12 schools, universities, the public health care program Medicaid and transportation. But that left other, job-intensive agencies — prisons, juvenile justice, human services, mental health programs, driver services — to take the hit.

Many of them submitted budget plans in September that called for eliminating vacant positions. Some had a lot of those because the turnover rate for, say, juvenile justice guards or child welfare workers, is extremely high. Some agencies have not been able to fill jobs for years that are funded and on the books.

The two agencies with the largest number of vacancies that would be eliminated are the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice. Almost half of the open jobs being eliminated would come from those two agencies.

Corrections Department officials said most of the jobs being eliminated are in administrative positions, craftsmen, maintenance, receptionists and business staffers.

“These vacant positions are not correctional officers; rather, the GDC is continuously recruiting for 0fficers and our team works to ensure security staffing levels remain consistent and appropriate for maintaining safe and secure facilities,” said Joan Heath, the director of public affairs for the agency.

Glenn Allen of the Department of Juvenile Justice said the vacant positions being eliminated in his agency include juvenile correctional officers and maintenance workers. Allen said positions in the agency have gone unfilled for two years.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that the turnover rate among entry-level officers in the Department of Juvenile Justice reached 130% for the 12 months ending June 30. As recently as Sept. 30, more than half of all corrections officers’ positions in the seven youth prisons were vacant.

“DJJ is confident that its mission will be accomplished with the fiscal 2020 and 2021 funding,” Allen said.

Georgia Division of Family and Children Services spokeswoman Ellen Brown said her division currently employs 7,000 staffers. Brown said no workers have been laid off and the impact of eliminating vacant positions “will be negligible.”

Black, whose Department of Agriculture would lose positions in areas such as food safety and marketing, is concerned about the cuts. Besides the vacant positions, Black has had to let go of a couple of full-time staffers and cut in other areas.

“I think it’s important to focus attention on why there were vacancies,” Black said. “Part of the major reason we have a critical problem with turnover … is that we are simply not competitive. We lose people to the industry and the federal government because our front-line positions are simply not competitive on the pay scale.”

That issue has driven the General Assembly in recent years to raise pay for several classes of workers, including state troopers.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, backed those pay raises and has said he’s concerned some of the job cuts could be in areas the General Assembly has made a point of trying to add staff to in recent years to provide services in a growing state.

Jobs on the books

Each year when governors present their voluminous budget plans to the General Assembly, they include several pages of background information —such as where the money is coming from and how much the state has in reserve. It used to include the number of “authorized positions” for each agency.

But the administration of Gov. Nathan Deal stopped reporting those numbers because so many jobs were left unfilled during the Great Recession. And it suspected that agencies would get funding for unfilled jobs and use the money for other spending priorities.

If another recession hits and the Kemp administration needs to cut further, that may be an area that gets much closer scrutiny.

“They should have a little discretion, but it was a way for them to fluff up their budgets,” said Harbin, the former House budget chairman. “If you eliminate those vacant positions, you force the agency to come to the Legislature and ask for what they really need.”

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