Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to veto about $30 million in projects approved by lawmakers earlier this year wasn’t particularly surprising after warning of “holes” in the state budget with recession clouds looming.
More shocking to lawmakers was the more than $200 million in spending that Kemp put on hold. In all, he directed agencies to ignore about 130 budget line items, many close to the hearts of lawmakers.
“There are a lot of questions. We’re still going through it and digesting it,” House Appropriations Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, said about a week after Kemp took a scalpel to the budget. “I respect the office of governor. Obviously, we have some disagreement.”
Kemp signed the $32.4 billion state budget on May 5 on the site of a new electric vehicle plant outside Savannah. A couple of hours later, at the close of the business day at the Capitol, he put out 33 pages of budget vetoes and what are known as budget “disregards.”
For example, lawmakers passed a budget that included $26 million for retiree raises, $6.3 million for free meals for school children, $6 million for bonuses for school custodians, $4 million to boost the pay of psychiatric hospital workers, and $1 million for agriculture positions to help peach, blueberry and citrus farmers.
Kemp told state agencies they could “disregard” those and other line items.
Legislative leaders were expecting some response from Kemp after passing a budget that he said had holes in it, and after cutting $66 million in funding for the University System of Georgia, which is run by former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who had a big influence on his political career. Just maybe not such a big one.
Kelly Farr, the governor’s budget director, said the possibility of an economic downturn ahead played a role in the cuts.
But he added, “I think a lot of it was there was a hole that was left in Medicaid (public healthcare), we didn’t fully fund the higher education teaching formula,” he said. “We need to maybe be a little more cautious.”
Kemp gets lawmakers’ attention
Farr said the governor approved 99.3% of the budget the General Assembly passed. That included pay raises for more than 200,000 teachers, state and university employees, record spending on education and more money for dozens of agencies.
But lawmakers noticed what was in that .7%. Members of both chambers added it up and counted $236 million in cuts or “disregards.” There are 236 members of the House and Senate, so that works out to $1 million per lawmaker.
“There are a lot of people trying to sort out what message he is sending,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s very difficult to make sense of it, other than he’s saying, ‘I’m going to show you who is running things.’ ”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, was a little more opaque, saying that he expected the Kemp administration to show as much respect for the role of the General Assembly as lawmakers do for the governor and his authority.
With “disregards,” the money stays in an agency’s budget. In some cases, Kemp directed agency officials to spend it differently than the General Assembly approved. In other cases, he essentially told them to hang onto the money, and he will likely propose cutting it from the budget once he releases a mid-year spending plan in January. Lawmakers will then get another crack at it.
Hitting legislative priorities
Several of the “disregards” were in mental health and substance abuse programs, which the House and Senate have worked hard to beef up in recent years. Legislative leaders have bragged about how they are expanding services and have poured tens of millions of dollars more into programs that help Georgians.
Efforts to provide extra pay raises for some mental health workers were nixed in part because the governor said programs should focus on increasing salaries for jobs that the state has trouble filling, not provide across-the-board hikes. Those increases would have been on top of the $2,000 raises most state government workers will receive in the new budget year.
Kemp didn’t, however cut extra pay raises that lawmakers approved for other employees, such as members of the state patrol.
The governor also told the behavioral health agency to disregard $24 million in funding for mental health crisis centers in Augusta, Fulton County and Dublin.
Kemp told the Department of Community Health, which runs Medicaid — the public health care programs for low-income and disabled Georgians — to disregard rate increases for medical providers and for dental services. He said those increases would have created a sizable shortfall in the Medicaid budget that provides health care for about 2 million Georgians.
“They would cut Medicaid to fund a lot of these provider pay increases,” Farr said. “When you are doing $5 million, $10 million, $15 million, that is one thing. It’s $130 million this year. That is a $130 million hole in the Medicaid budget.”
Lawmakers put $26.7 million into the budget to help fund a cost-of-living raise for state government retirees, but Kemp told the Employees’ Retirement System to ignore the appropriations language because legally, it’s up to the Retirement System board to determine whether the program can afford increases.
Kemp also nixed funding for free meals for school children eligible for reduced-priced meals and a $1,000 bonus for school custodians. He said the money for school meals wasn’t sufficient to fund the program. And he said the state doesn’t pay for school custodians. Both were spending additions touted by lawmakers during the session.
He told the University System to disregard a line with $1.5 million in extra money for the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation, a heavily promoted legislative effort to boost the economy of rural Georgia. He told the Student Finance Commission to reduce a proposed increase in HOPE scholarship awards to students at private colleges, another area lawmakers have long supported.
Unlike the “disregards,” where the money remains — at least temporarily — in an agency’s budget, the $30 million Kemp vetoed is gone. His vetoes included $6 million in borrowing for a technical college system building in TIllery’s district and $6 million for a dental school building at Georgia Southern University, which is partly represented by House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington.
Tillery was among those pushing the University System spending cut that passed on the final day of the session.
Orrock said it’s easy to see why some lawmakers are miffed at the governor.
“It’s such a disregard of the massive effort involved in getting money into the budget,” she said. “You work the whole session to get money for your technical college campus or (mental health) crisis center and with the stroke of a pen, it’s gone.
“It seems like he didn’t make a lot friends.”
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