Georgia House, Senate headed for joint budget negotiations

    State Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, a Reidsville Republican, said Wednesday:“In a difficult year, we have done our best to to carry on vital services and yet maintain our fiscal responsibility.” Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

    The Georgia Senate Wednesday approved a $27.4 billion amended budget with eight months already gone in the fiscal year and now changes must be reconciled in meetings with their House counterparts.

    Both chambers of the state Legislature propose to reverse some of the cuts in the budget Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled in January as state revenues staggered in 2019.

    “In a difficult year, we have done our best to to carry on vital services and yet maintain our fiscal responsibility,” said state Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, a Reidsville Republican, explaining the budget on the Senate floor.

    State senators want to spend more than Kemp proposed on public health, rural health care, foster care support, behavioral health and other priority areas.

    The Senate version lines up broadly with the House. Both chambers propose to soften the sting of cuts offered by Kemp by delaying the start of new programs, shifting budgeted money that’s probably not going to be spent this year, finding efficiencies like better software, and using more recent  staffing information than available to Kemp in January.  

    But most of the House and Senate adjustments are small in the context of a spending plan that tops $27 billion.

    Both chambers and the governor have agreed to cancel about 1,200 vacant state jobs, mostly in adult and juvenile prisons. Overall, cuts to discretionary spending come to about $159 million in each of the three plans.

    The Senate cuts the judiciary’s budget by 2% overall. That gives it a taste of 4% across-the-board budget cuts Kemp mandated for most agencies last summer, in the face of weak state revenue. Monthly budgets for most state departments shrunk by 4% last October, even though the plan is officially still under negotiation.

    Kemp exempted the population-driven rises in education and Medicaid spending, so the net effect is still a budget that’s about $450 million larger than last year’s.

    Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a Tucker Democrat, said the Senate budget attempts to address some of the most pressing needs in mental health and other areas that were cut in the governor’s budget proposal. But he said Georgia’s not measuring up in public safety, the wait for some public services, child protection, environmental protection and other areas.

    The Senate approved the budget 52-1.

    The House and Senate now have to tackle next year’s $28.1 billion budget. 

    But it won’t be easy.

    Kemp has proposed $2,000 pay raises for teachers, which will cost about $350 million.

    And House leaders have expressed support for a cut of the top rate of state income tax from 5.75% to 5.5%. That would take about $550 million away from a reliable state revenue source.

    Those two competing interests are part of why the budget is tight now. In 2018, the Legislature cut the top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75%. The next year, it followed up with a $3,000 teacher raise.

    And Henson outlined what Democrats will bring up in budget discussions for the spending plan that begins this July. 

    “If we don’t have safe roads, if we don’t have a strong public education system, if we don’t have protection of our drinking water or air, then we’re letting people down,” Henson said.

    The House and Senate will go to conference committees to hammer out consensus budgets for this year and next year for the governor’s review. House Speaker David Ralston has warned that 2021 budget negotiations could drag well into April.

    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.