Ga. Senate says $1 billion hole in k-12 spending looms in budget pain

“Due to the current predicament, there will be less, and there’s no reason to sugarcoat that,” said Sen. Blake Tillery, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We don’t hold the keys to a printing press." John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

The across-the-board cuts, which Gov. Brian Kemp ordered when restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 triggered a drop in revenues, may be slightly less severe than first envisioned when the virus brought the state’s economy to a halt.

But the 11% budget cuts still require painful decisions that make early March seem like a simpler time, when state officials were trying to make room in the budget for other spending priorities.

“To call this an unusual or abnormal time would be an understatement,” said Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, as he presented a largely rewritten budget.

Sen. Blake Tillery said Wednesday upcoming state spending cuts could include $1 billion to public education, other staff layoffs and furloughs for many state employees. Altogether, the cuts would shrink next year’s budget by about $2.6 billion. Screenshot of Georgia Senate livestream

“When we last gathered, our revenue estimate was higher than the previous year. Our biggest debates centered around how much to increase wages for teachers and state employees, all while also considering a second phase of an income tax cut,” he said. “Today, the headlines of January and February feel like distant history.”

Now, lawmakers are considering a $1 billion cut to public education, although Tillery noted about half the state’s budget is still devoted to education. They are also looking at staff layoffs and furloughs for many state employees. Altogether, the cuts would shrink the budget by about $2.6 billion.

Gone is the proposed $1,000 pay raise for teachers. Also wiped away are staff perks discussed earlier this year, like a $1,000 raise for low-income employees and targeted salary hikes for positions with high turnover rates.

The budget proposal also includes a $25 million cut to school counselors, $40.1 million cut to services for adults with developmental disabilities, $24.1 million to child and adolescent mental health services, $19.1 million to adult mental health services and about $14 million to local health departments, according to an analysis from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Craig Harper, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he was encouraged by efforts to protect some student services. But he said schools will be hard-pressed to provide online learning access, academic remediation and personal protective equipment with the overall proposed cuts.

“PAGE encourages policymakers at federal, state, and local levels to work toward solutions that minimize negative impacts on students, schools, and educators,” Harper said in a statement.

Senators also plan to cut their $17,000 salary by 11% to reduce the number of furlough days required of Senate staff. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said he will forego 14% of his $91,609 salary to soften the blow to his staff.

“Due to the current predicament, there will be less, and there’s no reason to sugarcoat that,” Tillery said. “We don’t hold the keys to a printing press.

“And each of you have set out to make hard decisions and have tough conversations concerning our state priorities – just like families and businesses across our state are doing – knowing that adding funds was not an option and highly valuing an item or program simply meant cutting it less,” Tillery said.

Democrats and advocates, though, are questioning why adding funds is not an option up for discussion. A coalition of groups with varying interests penned a letter to the governor and lawmakers last week urging them to consider raising revenues – such as through a tobacco tax hike or eliminating tax breaks – before resorting to cuts.

House Speaker David Ralston threw cold water, though, on any talk of a tobacco tax increase or ending or reducing tax credit programs, saying it would hurt the economy at time it is already struggling.

“This is not a good time to be killing more jobs,” the Blue Ridge Republican said Tuesday. “We’ve lost a lot of jobs during the pandemic. So, I think we need to be about the business of growing jobs back.”

But Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson called it a “bitter pill” to see, for example, cuts to public education while a $100 million pot of money set aside for a tax credit program that pays for private school tuition remains untouched.

“We should be willing to discuss everything,” the Stone Mountain Democrat said Wednesday. “If they can really prove that it’s going to cost jobs and send the economy backwards, we would accept that. But if we find out that they don’t even want to discuss it because they’re trying to protect contributors or friends, then that’s a problem.”

In an attempt to start a different kind of conversation about the budget, Rep. James Beverly says he has written his own budget proposal that avoids cuts to most of the budget during a time of major job losses and personal hardship for many Georgians. That would involve policy discussions around things like casino gaming and the film tax credit, which he proposes to cap.

“We’re not in a budget squeeze. We’re in an ideology squeeze,” said Beverly, who is a Macon Democrat and the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “And that ideology of government is we have to cut our way out. No, we don’t.”

The budget was unanimously passed out of committee Wednesday and still needs the full Senate’s backing. Once it clears the Senate, it will go back to House lawmakers who last touched the budget – then totaling $28.1 billion – back in March. There are eight days left in the legislative session.