Coronavirus saps state economy, state employees and services to face cut
Georgia’s state Capitol building. Credit: Kelly Jordan
By Maggie Lee
Georgia is looking at cutting back services and ordering unpaid time off for child welfare workers, GBI staff, public defenders and others, as state lawmakers start work on a budget walloped by COVID-19.
“I wanted to do everything I could to not cause job losses,” GBI Director Vic Reynolds told Georgia state senators Wednesday, presenting his agency’s proposed budget cuts.
Other department leaders had said similar things, and more will repeat similar points in the roughly five weeks that lawmakers have to decide how to cut about $3.8 billion from a budget that was supposed to have been about $28.1 billion.
City and county school systems will share in about $1.5 billion less from the state’s main K-12 funding formula for the next school year than they shared this year. (It’s too early to say how school systems will cope, but Atlanta Public Schools is anticipating years of dearth.)
Reynolds’ proposal has his employees furloughed two or three days each month. And the GBI proposes getting about 50 jobs off its books. Most of that would come from freezing hiring — a strategy other agencies are proposing too. But the GBI, and some others, don’t rule out layoffs.
Budget cuts may end eight to 12 specialty courts that closely oversee certain defendants and offer them therapy, rehab or job search assistance instead of prosecution. Former Gov. Nathan Deal made the setup of those “accountability” courts one of the marquee policies of his administration. He argued that it was better to offer help to people who could benefit from it and save expensive prison space for the most dangerous people.
There’s no list yet of which courts might be cut. Superior Court Judge Kathlene F. Gosselin of the Northeastern Circuit told senators that if the state sends less money to its judicial circuits, that many courts could come to an end.
The State Board of Pardons and Paroles is proposing layoffs or closing positions that it says are mission-critical.
Yet to come is testimony that will highlight what could be coming for services for some of the most vulnerable Georgians.
In a memo to lawmakers, the leader of the agency that handles child welfare and other human services has already said staff will probably be subject at least 24 furlough days.
The Department of Public Health is thinking of 12 furlough days for many employees and cutting funds for maternal health, among other programs. The agency that serves folks who have behavioral health or developmental disability needs is also talking about furloughs of up to 24 days, besides program cuts. The state agency that pays some public defenders in some communities is proposing 24 furlough days.
“We’ve got to put together a budget and it’s going to involve some cuts that are going to hurt,” said state Sen. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta, at the very start of state Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearings this week.
Georgia already ranks near the bottom of states in terms of state spending per resident. That’s a legacy of years of conservative rule at the state Captiol plus the Great Recession. But spending is low enough that even some Republicans were baffled earlier this year, before COVID-19, when Gov. Brian Kemp ordered state agencies to propose cuts that to some seemed too deep.
Federal funds will help pay for what Georgia’s cutting in the short term. If agency budget proposals this year are full of furloughs, they’re also full of proposals for tapping various federal funds for some costs and personnel. And Georgia has a healthy rainy-day fund it will use.
On the revenue side, modest or short-term cash might come from something like a higher tobacco tax, say, if such a move could get enough support. Or drawing on lottery reserves to shore up pre-K spending.
But plenty of Democrats are also talking about whether the leanest possible state government is the right thing for Georgians.
Georgia needs to make sure it has a sustainable way to support spending so it doesn’t slump back into cuts whenever there’s a downturn, said state Rep. Angelika Kausche, D-Johns Creek, at a Thursday town hall.
“If we say education is the future of the state, we cannot continue to think about cutting education because we cut our future,” she said.
Her Sandy Springs colleague, Democrat state Rep. Josh McLaurin, said governing isn’t as simple as pledging to decrease spending every year.
“The reality of governing a state like Georgia is a lot more complicated than that,” he said.
Documents from agencies:
Department of Education spreadsheet
Department of Public Health budget submission
Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities reduction summary