Gov. Brian Kemp signed off on a new $25.9 billion spending plan that starts Wednesday without the usual fanfare, capping off a prolonged budget process that was thrown into uncertainty after the COVID-19 outbreak.
The governor signed the document Tuesday in a closed signing ceremony with the Legislature’s top budget writers – Rep. Terry England and Sen. Blake Tillery – standing nearby in their masks.
The governor’s office limited media access and provided a video stream of the ceremony, citing social distancing guidelines due to the ongoing pandemic. Georgia has recently seen a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.
“This budget speaks to some of the, quite honestly, hard choices made by state leaders to streamline and innovate,” Kemp said Tuesday. “And while we were able to avoid draconian cuts, getting the balanced budget was hard. In these challenging times, this budget reflects that reality.”
Lawmakers hashed out the details of a $2.2 billion budget cut during the final weeks of this year’s restarted legislative session, which ended Friday. Much of those cuts – nearly $1 billion – were made to public education.
The pandemic brought Georgia’s economy to a standstill earlier this year, leading to a sharp decline in state revenues. But the hit to the budget was not quite as bad as initially feared: A call for 14% cut was later softened to 10%.
Kemp also transferred $250 million from the state’s nearly $3 billion rainy day fund to avoid requiring state workers to take unpaid time off.
But some groups urged state leaders to focus on ways to increase revenues – such as by raising Georgia’s cigarette tax rate, which is now the second lowest in the nation – before resorting to cuts. And Democrats have criticized Republican leaders for turning to spending cuts to balance the budget and for past decisions to reduce the state’s income tax rate.
In his remarks, the governor highlighted the areas of education, health care and public safety that were spared cuts or that saw a rare increase, such as the $19 million added to extend Medicaid access to low-income moms after delivery.
Kemp also championed the budget’s $1.1 billion bond package as an initiative meant to “spur growth and opportunity through numerous construction activities.” These funds will cover school construction projects and new buses, repair or replace roads and bridges, and beef up convention space, like $70 million for the expansion of the Savannah Convention Center.
“This bond package was designed with projects for every part of our state to help Georgia regain its competitive advantage. We will not let coronavirus undermine our progress,” Kemp said.