Georgia sexual assault centers, others take cuts despite $5B surplus

Governor Brian Kemp. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Governor Brian Kemp. (Natrice Miller/

Betty Dell Williams has seen her sexual assault program in Vidalia shut down before because of a lack of funding.

About a decade ago, Williams, executive director of The Refuge Domestic Violence Shelter & Sexual Assault Center, said she was getting only about $33,000 a year from the state to run the rape crisis program that was expected to offer around-the-clock services. So the program was closed.

A big increase in federal funding allowed officials to reopen it later that decade, but now she is once again wondering how to keep it going. Federal funding is expected to decline, and in May, the $50,000 she was expecting to help fund a sexual assault nurse coordinator position became part of about $240 million in cuts Gov. Brian Kemp made to the fiscal 2024 budget that lawmakers passed.

“We honestly may not be able to do this 24/7,” Williams said. “We may only be able to provide services during the day.” Which isn’t when most sexual assaults happen.

The cuts — most of them called “disregards” because the governor told state agencies to ignore what the General Assembly allocated funding for — came as a shock to many of those expecting funding. Money had been promised for school custodian salary enhancements and retiree pension increases, for free school lunches and mental health programs.

Two months later came the kicker: the state ended the fiscal year with a more than $5 billion surplus.

“I read the news of Georgia’s $5 billion surplus with a lump in my throat and a knot in the pit of my stomach,” said Margaret Williams, a Palmetto retiree from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who has seen almost no increase in her pension since she retired in 2017. Williams is not related to Betty Dell Williams.

Margaret Williams, a state government retiree, says she may have to sell her home this year. (Arvin Temkar /


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Kemp warned lawmakers of imbalances in the budget in March when they passed a $32.4 billion spending plan for fiscal 2024, which started July 1. He’d said repeatedly that while the state economy has been strong, the national picture was uncertain and he hinted that he might make cuts to their budget.

Now some of those affected by cuts are hoping the governor or General Assembly will restore at least some of the funding in the mid-year, or amended budget lawmakers will consider in January, since the state is again sitting on a massive surplus —the third in three years.

“What we are hoping with that surplus of money is they will put that money back in,” Betty Dell Williams, said.

But the senator who represents Williams’ domestic violence and sexual assault center, Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said don’t count on it.

“Anyone who thinks the amended (state) budget will be their panacea has to understand we are operating under the governor’s revenue estimate, and we’re not going to run the state into the red,” he said. “The veterans of the budget understand it’s not nearly as simple as coming back (and putting money) in the amended budget.”

When asked about the potential uses of the surplus, Andrew Isenhour, director of communications for Kemp, would only say, “For now, our budgetary review process is ongoing and will continue throughout the summer and into the fall. We’ll be talking with budget leaders from both chambers.”

Other priorities

The governor may have other priorities for the surplus.

A surplus essentially means the state took in more money in taxes than it spent in a fiscal year on education, health care, prisons, highways. social services and a host of other things. Some of the surplus typically goes into state savings accounts. The state “rainy day” fund, for instance, already has a record $5 billion banked.

During the past two legislative sessions, Kemp has also pushed tax refunds — income tax in 2022, and income and property tax givebacks this year. The refunds are popular with both lawmakers, who say it’s giving taxpayers back some of their money, and constituents.

Rep. Lauren McDonald  (R-Cumming) introduces HB 162 which would give a one-time tax credit to taxpayers who filed returns for both 2021 and 2022 on Thursday, February 23, 2023. (Natrice Miller/

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The governor is likely to propose at least part of the surplus go back to taxpayers next year, and some legislative leaders have already endorsed the idea.

Lawmakers also have raised concerns about rising costs for things like education and health care, expenses that increase every year.

But Danny Kanso, chief budget analyst for the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, which advocates for higher spending in some areas, said the more fundamental issue is that the state has the money to pay for spending priorities, but “we are choosing to govern as if we are in a recessionary period, and it’s not the case.

“It’s not about the money, it’s not about the fiscal conditions,” he said. “We are acting as if we are facing a massive recession, and I don’t know that anyone sees that playing out in the economy right now.”

Kanso, like some lawmakers, saw the governor’s decision to cut about 140 line items of spending from the budget — either by vetoing the money or telling agencies to “disregard” the stated purpose of the funding — as a political slap at a General Assembly that had done some things he didn’t like.

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, a longtime advocate for sexual assault victims and programs, said, “There were a lot of cuts that left people scratching their heads.”

Kemp gave reasons for each cut. On the $1,000 pay supplements for school custodians, he noted that local school districts fund those positions, not the state. Of the $6.3 million meant to make sure some children from lower income families got free school meals, he said it wasn’t enough money to fully fund the program and it was replacing federal money that had been paying for it.

On the $26.7 million for pension increases for the 54,000 state retirees who have gone mostly without any extra money for 14 years, Kemp said it was the job of the Employees Retirement System board to decide if the system could afford cost-of-living hikes, not the General Assembly.

The $1.26 million for nurse examiner coordinators was meant to help pay for one position in each sexual assault center.

Kemp’s “disregard” message said, “These funds would not result in additional sexual assault nurse examiners but would instead supplant existing federal funds used for these positions with state funds.”

Holcomb said, “These are lean programs that have to do extremenly demanding work around the clock. With a surplus, funding this should be a no-brainer.”

Federal funding decline

Gayla Nobles, executive director of the Southern Crescent Sexual Assault and Child Advocacy Center in Hampton, said the 28 sexual assault centers across the state are expecting federal spending cuts after having the government bolster their efforts in recent years.

Sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) coordinators are needed to schedule and manage nurses who perform forensic medical exams and collect evidence. In some cases, the coordinators also perform forensic medical exams, especially since there is a shortage of nurses to do the work statewide.

Nobles said her program handled hundreds of sexual assault cases and medical exams last year, including cases involving victims of sex trafficking.

First Lady Marty Kemp has headed efforts to attack human trafficking, and some of the victims receive services at Georgia’s sexual assault centers, the people who run the programs say.

“In order to provide comprehensive forensic medical services to victims of sexual assault in Georgia, sexual assault centers need this funding for the coordinators,” Nobles said.

Michelle Girtman, executive director of The Haven, a domestic violence shelter and sexual assault center in Valdosta, said her sexual assault program gets $54,000 a year from the state. The domestic violence program gets far more money from the state to house families in its shelter or in hotels to keep them safe.

A 2018 state audit showed most of the money sexual assault programs receive comes from the federal government and other sources, such as fundraising and local governments.

Girtman said all of Georgia’s sexual assault centers may not be able to provide services —such as having a crisis line or staffers available — 24 hours a day, seven days a week as the state requires. Girtman added, “I don’t think it’s the federal government’s job to give us money for a state mandate.”

The fact that the governor’s elimination of the nurse coordinator funding was called a “disregard” summed up how Girtman feels about what happened to the $1.2 million that the governor cut from the budget.

“We felt disregarded,” she said. “I don’t know how important we are to anyone, how important the victims are.”

Williams, the former DNR staffer, said state retirees, who went more than a decade without a cost-of-living increase until 2022, feel much the same way.

“This is the year that increases in my property taxes and homeowner’s insurance outstrip my pension’s ability to keep pace, and I’ll be forced to sell my home,” she said. “As I prepare to join the ranks of America’s housing insecure, I assure you that that $5 billion surplus doesn’t look worth it to me.”