State spending cuts begin with details still shrouded in mystery

By: and - October 1, 2019 8:36 am

State departments are supposed to scale back spending now but nearly two months after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered cuts detailed plans are still not public. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Lawmakers are pressing for more details after hearing unsettling economic forecasts but few details on what – or who – may soon be cut from this year’s budget.

Agency heads started their day Monday – the day before they were set to start holding back some of the state funding approved earlier this year – with a polite-but-to-the-point memo from the directors of the Senate and House budget offices.

The missive “respectfully” requested copies of the “same, unedited budget plan and supporting documentation” that was sent to Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget office. The memo also cited specific passages of Georgia law for good measure and gave agency leaders a deadline: this Friday.

“As you know, this information has been provided to the General Assembly in previous years,” the memo read.

The memo comes days after lawmakers inquired about the possibility of state employees losing their jobs, to which Kemp’s budget director, Kelly Farr, said job cuts were not seen as the first option but were still “very possible.”

In August, House Speaker David Ralston called the budget meetings several months early after the governor unexpectedly ordered 4% budget cuts this year and 6% next year. The hearings customarily feature department heads and are usually held at the beginning of each legislative session.

But Kemp directed agency heads to skip the meetings. Shortly after that, the governor’s counsel followed up with a sternly worded memo in early September instructing agency leaders to send their budget submissions to Kemp and not lawmakers.

Lawmakers, however, are now insisting on seeing the details. When asked for comment through a spokesperson, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan declined Monday.

“Our office is currently reviewing this request,” Kemp’s spokesman, Cody Hall, said Monday of the memo.

State government agencies sent their proposed cuts to the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget early last month in the form of summaries, which were publicly posted to the office’s website. But those summaries reveal few details on what each agency would cut beyond total dollar amounts. Largely missing are specifics on which jobs might be eliminated, which programs would see less funding and how cutting a department’s budget could affect its bottom line.

Many state agencies have not divulged details about their cuts nearly a month after handing reduction proposals to the governor’s budget office.

Two state agencies, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Community Affairs, did provide documents on budget cuts Monday to the Georgia Recorder. They show a handful of staff positions to be eliminated in both departments, though most savings would be captured by not filling vacant jobs or by slashing funds for some programs that budget for more than they spend, according to the documents.

The Department of Public Health, the documents show, plans to trim five staff positions with only one of those appearing to be filled now. “The duties will still be performed with one less lab aide,” read a document from the agency obtained through a records request.

Other cuts at the department this year entail $1.9 million in contracted services for pregnancy resource centers, $400,000 spent on stocking public health department facilities with feminine hygiene products and about $5 million sent to county health districts, the documents show.

Other agencies, like the Department of Human Services and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, have given the Georgia Recorder copies of slideshow presentations illustrating cuts that were prepared for boards with oversight over those departments.

Some state agency staffers say they will provide documents later this week that explain the cuts in more detail. Others have not said when they would provide those documents or have declined to release them until after budget proposals are complete.

For instance, a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Brad Parks, told the Georgia Recorder last Thursday that documents on the budget cuts were “not available for your review at this time” and to check back in seven to 10 business days for an update.

“The proposal is still a work in progress and has not been finalized or approved,” Parks said in an email. The bureau so far has proposed eliminating around two dozen staff positions including 12 sworn officers this year, according to a summary of the proposed cuts the governor’s budget office released last month.

The lack of details on the cuts from several agencies and the slow pace of providing public records falls short of the kind of transparency state government should show for important financial decisions, said Richard T. Griffiths, president of the nonprofit Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

The public ought to have enough information to weigh in on the proposed budget cuts before they start to take effect Tuesday, Griffiths said, and state agencies risk doing a public disservice by not releasing more information until after that point.

“That’s really a big problem,” Griffiths said Monday. “If the cuts go into effect before the public knows what the cuts are, that’s completely backwards.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans

Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.