Georgia Democrats gave a preview of the political sparring to come at a Tuesday press conference held to decry Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget cuts, particularly to health care.
“The reality is that the budget is a value proposition for those who are in power,” state Rep. James Beverly, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said at the event. “And at this particular point, that’s why we’re doing everything we can to flip the House, and hopefully, we’ll do that this year.”
That would be no small feat to pull off. Democrats need to gain 16 seats in the 180-member body to seize control of the chamber, and Republican House Speaker David Ralston says he’s just as adamant about preserving his party’s dominance at the Gold Dome.
For now, Democrats and Republicans in the House – where the budget starts its winding journey – are collectively going line by line through the budget and questioning cuts that are collectively meant to save about $200 million this year and $300 million next year.
For the first time since the recession, Georgia lawmakers paused the 40-day legislative session for more than a week to take a deep dive into the budget. On the House side, the only committee meetings set for this week are related to the budget.
Some of the reductions flagged by Democrats – such as cuts to public health departments, mental health services and a rural physician recruitment program – have also troubled many of their colleagues across the aisle.
“We may not have a hospital everywhere, but we do have health departments, and they do not need to be cut as severely as they’ve been cut this budget,” said Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Junction City Democrat who is the vice chair of the legislative rural caucus.
“When we look at the cost of these cuts, it isn’t so much about dollars and cents,” Buckner said. “Put quite simply, we need to put our constituents first or they will pay for these cuts dearly, many times with their lives.”
Beverly said Democrats plan to “push back on every single cut that that (Kemp) made.” He said he’d prefer to see the cuts avoided by rethinking Georgia’s tax structure, such as raising the tobacco tax.
The governor’s office, meanwhile, is rejecting some of the dire descriptions emerging from the legislative budget process, arguing that the first-term governor is pressing state agencies to function more efficiently and that many of the cuts will go unnoticed by most Georgians.
For example, Kelly Farr, director of the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, told lawmakers Tuesday that one of the more controversial cuts – proposed reductions to the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities – are aimed at new funding, not existing services. He noted that the agency’s budget will still grow by about $50 million.
“When you exempt all those fund sources, you have to cut money somewhere,” Farr said. “I get that this is painful, but we tried to be thoughtful about it and we tried to do it in a way that is not going to be impactful, especially to the people that this state is serving today.”
Kemp called for the cuts last fall amid sluggish state revenues and to make room in the budget for his priorities, like a second round of the teacher pay hike he promised on the campaign trail in 2018.
The legislative review of the budget has been fraught with tension this year, with House members accusing the governor’s office of being less than forthcoming with information. Farr apologized to lawmakers Tuesday morning for not being more responsive to their inquiries at an earlier meeting.