Kemp to Georgia agencies: no new budget cuts next fiscal year

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office told state agencies Thursday that they won’t have to propose new budget cuts next year, despite the continuing COVID-19 recession.

That’s a reprieve for agencies — such as the University System of Georgia, the Georgia State Patrol and the Department of Natural Resources — that had to handle 10% spending cuts in the fiscal year that began July 1.

Lawmakers in June passed a fiscal 2021 budget that cut $2.2 billion — including $950 million in basic aid to school systems. For fiscal 2022, which begins next July 1, Kemp is asking for no new reductions.

“Because of the difficult decisions we made during the spring, we are well-positioned to weather the economic challenges we may face,” Kemp’s budget director, Kelly Farr, wrote state agencies.

The COVID-19 recession threw millions of Americans out of work and closed businesses, suppressing spending and use of services that help pump tax revenue into state and local government coffers.

That, in turn, has left yawning holes in budgets spent educating students, policing communities, providing health care, building and maintaining roads and parks, and serving a host of other functions.

“Throughout the spring and summer, we have been waging a war on two fronts,” Farr told state agency directors.

“One for the physical health of our citizens and one for the economic health of our families and communities,” Farr wrote. “Georgia, like all states saw an economic drop during the spring, but the economic foundations of our state have remained strong, and we are seeing an encouraging resiliency over the summer.”

Farr said budget plans may include increased funding for things such as the growth in enrollment of both k-12 schools and Medicaid.

The administration’s directives are not without precedent. Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal, asked agencies to submit budget proposals with no increases in most of the eight years he was in office as he rebuilt the state’s reserve funds after the Great Recession.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, this week asked Georgia’s U.S. senators to support a $500 billion aid package for states that have been hard-hit by declines in revenue.

Nationally, about 1.5 million college, school and other government workers were laid off or furloughed during the early months of the COVID-19 recession, eclipsing the declines during the Great Recession, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures.

In Georgia, the state ended the fiscal year June 30 with 2,100 fewer employees than it had the previous year. There are nearly 18,000 fewer state employees today than there were at the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

Kemp and budget leaders in the Georgia House and Senate asked Congress for aid months ago, but the Republican-led U.S. Senate has so far opposed sending money to states to help them balance their budgets.

Some economists and advocacy groups have warned that years of budget cuts because of the COVID-19 recession could slow any economic recovery.

On Wednesday, Kemp wrote in a bill-signing message that he will in coming weeks call a special session to fix what he said were problems in tax-exemption legislation. In the message, he said the session could also be used to consider “budgetary” issues. If the session happens and if the state receives federal funding, it could be used to blunt the impact of this year’s budget cuts.