The state Senate passed its version of next year’s shrunken spending plan Friday, with the vote falling along party lines.
Senate budget writers unveiled a proposal Wednesday that includes a $1 billion hit to public education, staff layoffs and furloughs, and cuts to local public health departments and services funded throughout the budget, including behavioral health and addiction treatment. The budget takes effect July 1.
“You don’t reduce funds by 11% – or $2.6 billion – without somehow affecting every budget and every corner of our state,” Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Lawmakers are weighing cuts after state revenues dropped when COVID-19 – and restrictions meant to slow its spread – brought the state’s economy to a halt. The Senate backed the post-COVID 19 spending plan with a 34-to-15 vote, but the details will now be hashed in a small legislative committee.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a Stone Mountain Democrat, blamed at least part of the state’s budget woes on past decisions, such as a 2018 income tax rate that cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
And even though lawmakers began fully funding the state’s education formula the last two years for the first time since the Great Recession, that funding formula hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.
“It’s difficult to see a state with so many challenges – some brought on by a pandemic, but many of these problems are brought on by our previous actions as a Legislature,” Henson said.
“Some of the problems we have were brought on by sickness of health. Some by sicknesses of our policies and decisions of the past,” he said.
Democrats and others have tried to convince Republicans to consider revenue-raising options – like an increase to Georgia’s tobacco tax rate, which is currently among the lowest in the country – and changes that would free up money, like eliminating tax breaks.
“I am deeply troubled by the fact that we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat.
A Senate committee led by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Rome Republican, said his panel is looking for ways to end tax breaks that would free up revenue. “We will continue to work on revenue,” Hufstetler said Friday.
Tillery acknowledged the blow to public education and said that’s why senators kept intact funding for other aid programs for low-income schools.
He also noted that the budget still includes some funds to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income moms after they deliver in hopes of curbing Georgia’s high rate of maternal mortality.
But instead of the $19 million needed to add six months of coverage, there will be three months added at a cost of about $2.3 million. Currently, coverage ends after 60 days after giving birth.
Now that the revised budget cleared the Senate, it will go back to House lawmakers who last touched the budget – then totaling $28.1 billion – back in March. There are the legislative session is tentatively set to end next week.