State Senate set to join House push against governor’s budget cuts

    The state Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday voted to largely follow the lead of House colleagues, spending more than the governor recommends for county public health departments, public defenders, educational loan repayments for rural health workers and other priorities. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia’s state Senate, like the House, is moving toward a budget that spends a few million more than Gov. Brian Kemp recommends for public health, public defenders and some other key spending priorities.

    “What we tried to do was to look at service reductions and where we could, restore services that directly affected children, the elderly, the disabled and essential public safety needs,” said Georgia state Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, just before his committee unanimously approved amendments to the state budget for the year that’s now eight months old.

    The total budget still comes to $27.4 billion because the governor sets revenue projections. But Hill said the Senate found savings the governor didn’t with things like later starting dates for new employees, spending trends that indicate surpluses anticipated by the end of the year or other efficiencies.

    The Senate budget allots more than the governor’s spending plan for county public health departments, public defenders, educational loan repayments for rural health workers and more. That’s similar to the revisions proposed in the House.

    The Senate declined to cut $2.1 million for a new class of state troopers as proposed in the House. Hill, a Reidsville Republican, expects a full Senate vote on the amended budget Wednesday. 

    Overall, the amended state budget is set to increase by 0.05% — or about $450 million — compared to last year. The rise tracks increased costs associated with a growing population, like education and Medicaid.

    Last summer, Kemp directed agencies that handle most services outside those two dominant categories to cut spending by 4%, in the face of a slowdown in state income from taxes and fees. Overall, spending cuts in the 2020 budget amount to $159 million.

    Decatur Democrat and caucus Vice Chair state Sen. Emanuel Jones called the governor’s proposed budget cuts “draconian” and “unacceptable” to him and to Georgians overall. He said he hopes the governor will agree to the revisions from the House and Senate.

    Georgia is enjoying record employment, so Jones questions why Kemp proposed cuts to social services. 

    “That didn’t make sense to me,” Jones said. 

    Jones said the budget is suffering from “self-inflicted” wounds, like banking on a federal tax cut two years ago to translate into a windfall for Georgia’s treasury. 

    Between an income tax cut from 2018 and $3,000 teacher pay raises lawmakers handed out the next year, Georgia’s budget might have been nearly $1 billion more than it is, Jones pointed out. 

    And those two costly initiatives are still on the table for the 2021 budget negotiations lawmakers are working through now. In next year’s budget that starts in July, many of the 2020 cuts will carry over, while Kemp wants a $350 million for another raise for teachers and some state House leaders want an income tax cut that could remove $550 million from potential spending on education, health care and other public services.

    With the amended 2020 budget negotiation nearly wrapped up, the state House and Senate can turn more attention to the 2021 $28.1 billion spending plan.

    The House and Senate will work out their differences on both budgets in conference committees and send consensus budgets to the governor for his review. House Speaker David Ralston has warned that the 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.