OPINION: ‘Gut-punched’ lawmakers working through Kemp budget cuts

You don’t need to be a couples counselor to know that arguments over money are often really about power— who gets the final call on what, when, and how shared money is spent.

And “shocked,” “disappointed,” “gut-punched,” and “what the (expletive)” are not words we usually hear from Republican lawmakers about a move from Gov. Brian Kemp. But that’s exactly what happened this month after Kemp signed the state’s annual budget in a folksy press conference — with GOP allies standing behind him — only to cut some of those lawmakers’ most prized programs hours after the photo-op was done.

It also came after two years in which Republican lawmakers had almost uniformly supported him in his 2022 primary race and unanimously passed Kemp initiatives for tax cuts, gun expansions, transgender-focused policy changes, and other requests.

The AJC’s James Salzer detailed some of the most significant programs that got the governor’s ax through veto or “disregard,” which is an instruction to state agencies to “disregard” lawmakers’ spending instructions, but keep the money — at least temporarily.

Included on the list were comparatively small items in the state’s $32 billion budget —such as $1 million to study the state’s practice of “hoteling” of children in state custody, and $4 million to boost the pay of state psychiatric hospital workers.

Why the governor cut what he did, when he did it, and only told lawmakers after the fact is now the subject of confusion, frustration and anger around the state.

Among the few willing to talk publicly was state Rep. Matt Hatchett, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Hatchett had been standing behind Kemp at 2 p.m. on May 5 as the governor signed the budget. But he only learned about Kemp’s changes to the budget, including funds for a mental health crisis center in his own district, at 5 p.m. that day.

“I found out when everybody else did,” Hatchett said in an interview. Hatchett said that he respects Kemp and his role in the budget process, but said it’s a shared responsibility between the governor and the General Assembly.

“Are there some places that we don’t agree? Sure. And we’re having discussions back and forth, trying to learn more about everything that was done.”

Hatchett was crucial to Kemp’s effort to give teachers and state law enforcement officers pay raises in the budget, while also passing nearly $2 billion in across-the-board income and property tax rebates this year.

Among the items that Hatchett was most distressed to see Kemp defund, he said, was a plan to also give school custodians $1,000 bonuses, especially after he told a reporter earlier this year it was the single piece of spending he was most proud to have been able to include.

“School custodians impact many lives in ways we don’t know,” Hatchett said.

Hatchett also worries about the $6.4 million that won’t go to expand the state’s free breakfast and lunch program. The program is limited to families with income below $34,000 for a family of four, but he heard from state dieticians about kids whose families don’t qualify, but still don’t have the money to pay for school meals.

For all of the programs the committee works to fund, he said, “We legislate with our minds and hearts and that issue tugged on both, but maybe a little more on my heart.”

Kemp also stopped money for a mental health crisis center in Hatchett’s Dublin district, a dental school in House Speaker Jon Burns’ district, and a technical college in the district of state Sen. Blake Tillery, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Tillery met Thursday with the governor’s budget director, Kelly Farr, who had gone to Vidalia to talk to him about Kemp’s vetoes and disregards.

“I was pretty clear with Kelly that I didn’t agree with some of the things he did and he was pretty clear with me that he didn’t agree with some of the things we did,” Tillery said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to work with the House and with the governor’s office for the betterment of 11 million Georgians.”

Democrats aren’t as charitable about Kemp’s cuts, especially the ones to expand the state’s limited mental health services.

“I represent a lot of legislators, Republican and Democrats in saying this: We work very hard on budget matters and we think we are doing so for the purpose of helping people in Georgia,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat. “And I don’t feel a lot of respect for that effort.” She added that the cuts will set the state’s efforts to improve mental health access back significantly.

Part of the anger at Kemp is the way lawmakers got the news — buried in a 33-page document of line items and technical language. But it is also a feeling that Kemp, who has maneuvered through the most dangerous political waters over the last three years, blindsided his allies and enemies alike.

The official explanation from Kemp press secretary Garrison Douglas is that some items, like the school meal program had not been fully funded by lawmakers, while others, like expanding the state’s mental health hotline, did not have sufficient data to support the cash lawmakers wanted for it.

Still others, like $26 million to boost benefits for state retirees, would be recurring programs in future budget years that could get tighter, Douglas said.

“We’re making sure that these dollars are being used wisely, that we’re not essentially having to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “If a program hasn’t been fully funded, that’s coming out of something else. We want to make sure that we’re doing things in a responsible manner.”

After a legislative session when senators led by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones also cut one of Kemp’s prized pots of money for the University System of Georgia, just as Kemp’s mentor Sonny Perdue was taking over as chancellor, this round of funding fights goes to Kemp. But plenty of lawmakers are planning ahead for how they’ll get the upper hand the next time.