Georgia lawmakers put a hold on the calendar to zero in on budget

House Speaker David Ralston's members are adjourned until Feb. 18 except for Appropriations Committee members focused on state spending cuts. The Senate, under Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left), will continue to meet as committees. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Fighting temptation to rush through their 40 days of lawmaking in Atlanta in order to hit the campaign trail in early April, Georgia legislators voted Tuesday to postpone full meetings in the House and Senate chambers until Feb. 18.

It’s the first such extended break in the General Assembly’s calendar since lawmakers needed time to agree on where to slash the budget in 2010 as the recession caused state revenues to plunge. In August, Gov. Brian Kemp ordered most departments to cut spending in this year’s budget as well as next year’s. 

State House and Senate members are now expected to spend most of their time while the full chambers are adjourned reviewing amendments to the $27.5 billion budget for the current fiscal year, plus the roughly $28.1 billion spending plan for the 2021 budget that starts in July.

“I’m sympathetic to people that want to get out of here,” said state House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican. “But we didn’t put on our mail pieces [to voters]: ‘Send me to the Capitol and I’ll fight for you until the end of March.’”

The governor is insisting on $2,000 teacher pay raises in next year’s spending plan and cuts in most state departments. The governor’s proposed raises for teachers and other state employees would cost the state about $400 million.

The state’s biggest expense categories, public schools and Medicaid spending, are not discretionary and will continue to rise in step with a growing population.

Meanwhile, the state House leader says lawmakers made a commitment to Georgia taxpayers to deliver an income tax cut in next year’s budget worth $550 million. On the other hand, the Senate finance chair said at a recent forum he doesn’t “see the math” for a tax cut when important state services are on the chopping block.

The state House and Senate must agree with each other and get the Governor’s OK on spending plans for the next 17 months before the lawmakers can go home and campaign for re-election. And lawmakers can’t accept campaign donations while the General Assembly is in session.

Ralston asked all committee chairs except those on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee to suspend their meetings until Feb. 18. The House clerk will stop accepting new draft legislation between Tuesday and that date. Some committees could still hear from scheduled presenters, but taking any action would amount to defiance of Ralston.

The pause could interfere with the movement of other legislation, Ralston said. 

“But that’s OK, because this (budget) is the one thing we have to do.”

Ralston said one reason for the interruption is House members can’t get budget information that they need from the executive branch and that they’d heard testimony from department and agency heads who couldn’t justify the budget cuts ordered by the governor.

House Speaker David Ralston said the extended break will give House budget writers a chance to take a deep dive into Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget cuts. The Blue Ridge Republican met with reporters Wednesday at the Capitol after legislators voted to not hold full meetings until Feb. 18. Maggie Lee/Georgia Recorder

Ralston declined to name agencies, but in budget hearings so far, the leader of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia warned that some proposed budget cuts are dangerous, even deadly, or will cost more in the long run.

Kemp unveiled his proposed budget last month, which included  plans by most of his executive branch agencies to cut spending 4% this year and 6% in the next budget. Kemp also directed department heads to stay away from a planned early House and Senate budget hearing in September. Those department leaders started presenting their budgets to the state House and Senate on Jan. 22.

Kemp’s office disputed Ralston’s claim that legislators were kept in the dark after the governor ordered cuts. A Kemp spokeswoman said that since September, the state Legislature received access to the Office of Planning and Budget computer system where agencies submitted their draft budgets and that lawmakers have used the state’s Open Records Act to request more documents.

Atlanta Democratic state Rep. Pat Gardner said the whole budget atmosphere feels hostile and she doesn’t see why the governor asked for budget cuts.

“I really appreciate that the House is pushing back, the House leadership said, ‘This is too severe,” Gardner said, who took office in 2001.

But she doesn’t share House leadership’s interest in a cut to the top rate of income tax to 5.5% from 5.75% this year. It’s a second quarter point reduction that lawmakers set in motion in 2018 to lower the longstanding 6% rate.

“That helps the people who have the most money … a lot of people make nothing,” Gardner said. 

The Senate calendar will now mirror the House schedule, although its committees will remain active, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said.

“We understand there is a tight budget situation across the state this year and the House needed a little bit more time to review the information they receive from state agencies because we get one chance to get this right,” Dugan said.

Since 1982, Rep. Calvin Smyre has participated in the state’s budget process and he says postponing regular floor chamber meetings is a sign that drastic measures are needed.

This break gives more time to digest the budget, but hopefully not at the expense of other priorities, Smyre said.

“I would hope that we would elevate ourselves and be able to undertake what I think is going to be a very grueling process,” he said. “I’ve been through this cycle before. There’s a lot of pain.”

The rhythm of the Capitol’s daily routine should feel different next week. Children who take a break from school to spend a day as pages running messages on the House and Senate floors will be out of a job. Protestors and advocates who were planning marches and testimony won’t find as many lawmakers to buttonhole.

Some groups, like the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, scrambled Wednesday to reschedule plans to converge on the state Capitol in hopes of persuading lawmakers to support their causes. 

Moms Demand Action, a nonprofit that supports gun regulations, postponed plans for a couple of hundred people to show up next Wednesday. A new date has yet to be set.

And then there are those who see the pause as a tactic. Like veteran lobbyist Neill Herring. 

“There had been established a very definite pattern of momentum, particularly in the Senate, of just starting to shove (stuff) through quick,” Herring said. “And bringing that to a halt is a way of focusing attention.”

That is, maybe it’s a way of getting the state Senate to hold hearings on the budgets, or at least get ready for them in a timely manner.

Meaning that in the end, maybe the whole session wouldn’t run too far into election season.

Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008. Her written work and data journalism has appeared in online and print outlets including The (Macon) Telegraph, Creative Loafing and SaportaReport.com.
Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.