Gov. Brian Kemp continued to show he’s bullish on Georgia’s economy Thursday despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, calling on lawmakers to backfill a sizable chunk of the k-12 school funding cuts they approved last year and proposing the state borrow nearly $1 billion for construction projects.
For the first time since taking office, Kemp didn’t request a state-funded pay raise for teachers when he released his budget proposals. However, the governor said the state would use federal CARES Act money to provide one-time bonuses of $1,000 for teachers and school staffers.
The governor’s spending plans for the rest of fiscal 2021, which ends June 30, and for fiscal 2022, would restore about 60% of what lawmakers cut from basic k-12 school funding in this year’s budget. Over two budget years, that would amount to about $1.2 billion.
Kemp’s $27.2 billion budget for the upcoming year includes a big increase in basic funding for the University System of Georgia as well, and it would borrow about $400 million for construction and upgrade projects on k-12, university and college campuses. It would also borrow big for roads and bridges and other construction.
Prison and juvenile facility guards would receive 10% raises April 1 to help address sky-high turnover.
The plan includes about $70 million to help struggling rural communities, including almost half for a grant program to help them increase high-speed internet service this year and next.
In a letter outlining his proposals, and in his State of the State address Thursday, Kemp touted Georgia’s economy, which has outperformed that of many other states during the pandemic.
“I am optimistic that Georgia’s state economic foundations will continue to support our robust recovery,” Kemp said in a letter detailing the highlights of his budget plans.
“The budget I am presenting to you will help drive that economic recovery by restoring resources to our K-12 and higher education school systems to develop a skilled and labor-ready workforce, continuing to expand and maintain our critical transportation and logistics infrastructure, and providing financial assistance to rural communities to support innovation and economic development across the state.”
The governor’s proposals will now be considered by the House and Senate.
This time last year, Kemp pushed for a $2,000 pay raise for teachers — on the heels of a $3,000 raise in 2019. He had promised teachers a $5,000 raise overall when he ran for the governor in 2018.
However, that second raise vanished with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and lawmakers in June cut agency spending about 10% — including k-12 basic school funding by $950 million — in anticipation that state revenue would be down.
States across the country expected massive shortfalls because of the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but tax collections in Georgia and in many states have gone up rather than down, in large part because of massive federal spending on the unemployed and businesses.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that collections — mostly from income and sales taxes — were up $722 million for the first six months of fiscal 2021. But those gains could shrink in coming months as Georgians begin getting their income tax returns and the state has to return a lot of the money it withheld from federally enhanced unemployment checks.
Kelly Farr, the governor’s budget director, said Kemp is being cautious.
“In uncertain times, we are creating a budget that gives us a lot of certainty,” he said. “I think it still gives the governor the flexibility to do what is necessary if revenues don’t show up.”
That flexibility includes a well-stocked state reserve fund, which Farr said Kemp didn’t have to tap over the past year. In May, when unemployment was rampant and the recession was raging, the state economist said Kemp might have to drain half of the more than $2 billion account to balance the budget, even with massive spending cuts. But the cuts lawmakers passed in June were, for the most part, more than enough.
In his State of the State address, Kemp told lawmakers Thursday: “Because we acted swiftly and early, the budgets my administration will propose in the coming days include no new cuts to state agencies and departments, no furloughs, and no widespread layoffs of state employees. And, I might add, no new taxes to pay for all of it.”
As is common for governors, Kemp noted increased school spending in his address Thursday. A majority of state spending goes for k-12 schools and higher education.
The governor did not say when school districts would receive the $240 million for teacher and system employee supplements.
But Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods said he would recommend the state Board of Education approve the allocation at its Feb. 18 meeting.
“Our teachers and school staff have done extraordinary work in the last 10 months,” Woods said. “At the onset of the pandemic, they essentially reinvented the educational delivery system in the space of a weekend, and since then have continued to show up for their students, whether virtually or in-person.
“What we’ve asked of them has been far from easy, and we are providing these bonuses as a tangible gesture of our gratitude and respect for their work and sacrifices, and as a means of retaining these dedicated educators and support personnel who make educating our students possible.”
Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, one of the leading teacher groups in the state, said, “We are appreciative of the one-time $1,000 bonus Kemp proposed to all public school classroom teachers and (staffers), more than 200,000 educators across the state.
“And while it can never truly reward them for going above and beyond, it will certainly help offset whatever hardships they and their families have had or continue to face.”
Besides education, one of the big drivers of the budget increase next year is health care, with Medicaid — the program that covers the poor and disabled — slated for a $329 million increase. That’s in part because recipients who put off medical treatment and appointments during the pandemic are expected to see their doctors more in 2022.
Kemp’s proposal also includes $76 million for his program to increase health care availability for thousands of low-income Georgians.
Georgia officials have estimated that about 50,000 people will obtain coverage through the program. Democrats say allowing more Georgians to receive Medicaid would insure 10 times that many people, but Republicans, including Kemp, have opposed the idea.
The governor’s budget plan includes little new money for the Georgia Department of Public Health, which has been on the front line battling the COVID-19 pandemic since March. Critics have said the DPH had been underfunded for years going into the pandemic.
However, Farr said the DPH has seen a huge influx of money under the federal CARES Act that Congress approved in March, and some of that has gone for things such as increased staff that the agency needs in the long term.
“It is going to allow them a lot of flexibility to address a lot of issues,” Farr said. “There is a lot of money there to handle a lot of problems.”
While Farr said most of what Kemp is doing is paying for necessities such as education and health care — the two biggest parts of the state budget — he’s also looking to boost the economy and planning for the future.
Kemp is proposing hundreds of millions of dollars in road and bridge spending. At a speech Wednesday, he touted a $1 million marketing program to promote Georgia tourism, an industry hammered by the recession.
And his proposal includes $90 million in borrowing to expand the Savannah Convention Center. Lawmakers approved $70 million in borrowing for the project last year. Convention business is way off since COVID hit, and it’s unclear how quickly the industry will bounce back.
Some of Gov. Brian Kemp’s key spending proposals
- $1.2 billion to replace austerity cuts that k-12 schools faced because of the COVID recession. Universities and colleges would also see more state money
- About $500 million more in transportation funding, much of it for road resurfacing, construction and maintenance
- $240 million, using federal COVID relief funds, to provide $1,000 bonuses to teachers and school employees
- $70 million targeted to help rural Georgia’s economy, including $30 million to add more high-speed internet