Georgia budget: Might be too conservative, or just conservative enough.An exterior view of the state Capitol in Atlanta. (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
By Maggie Lee
Georgia’s just about settled on spending about $22.6 billion from its main budget fund for the year that will end in June. Spending on education won’t be cut as deeply as it might have been.
But the bigger debate will come when it’s time to do the budget for the 12 months that start July 1.
“Those of us standing here today prioritize passing a budget that is fiscally conservative and one that reflects our values,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan on Wednesday as he and fellow Republicans Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston announced a surprise change to the state’s spending plans for the next five months.
About 57,000 state employees who make less than $80,000 per year in most agencies are set to get a one-time bonus of $1,000.
And now, the Georgia House and Senate head into the annual winter negotiations to finish what’s called the “little” budget — adjustments to cover the next roughly five months of state spending. It’s “little” because it’s usually just adding a bit here, or taking from there, in response to what ever has happened in the previous seven or eight months.
“A bit” in state government terms is still as much as nine figures though.
The adjustments are set to include $567 million more in the main K-12 spending budget line, restoring part of what Legislature tentatively cut at its last session. (Though the state Department of Education’s budget will still be smaller than it was before COVID-19.)
And the little budget includes 10% raises for correctional officers — because so many of them leave the job. But the state will pay for those by repurposing money already set aside for the jobs that aren’t filled.
Those ideas already have the agreement of the state House, Senate and Kemp.
The sides still differ on some things, like spending $1 million to $4 million on Georgia’s tourism promotion agencies; and on hiring a deputy commissioner of public heath, a chief data officer and getting new software to help with COVID-19 response.
A state House-Senate conference committee will come up with a compromise in the coming days for their chambers, which will then send it to Kemp for his review.
Yet to come is the “big” budget.
The 2022 budget is not much “bigger” in dollar terms — $23.3 billion in the state’s main pool of money, the so-called general fund.
But it is bigger in terms of setting the course for the state for a whole 12 months starting July 1, 2021.
Kemp filed the first draft in January with a pitch to partially restore education cuts again. He also wants to set aside $40 million for a “rural innovation fund” — meant to be sort of a Shark Tank, but for rural communities’ economic developments ideas.
His plan didn’t include significant new spending on public health. But Georgia’s rainy day fund — what it has set aside for emergencies — would stay well over $2.8 billion.
Democrats in both chambers have been skeptical of Republican spending plans all session, asking why things like education, behavioral health, public health and Medicaid aren’t getting more state money when times are bad for so many Georgians.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Gloria Butler said on Tuesday Georgians are hurting, and many families are existing on a wing and a prayer, trying to hold it all together.
“We fell short last year when we originally voted on this year’s budget,” Butler said. “We left holes in education health care social work, the list goes on and on,” Butler said.
Of course there’s the financial disaster in the wake of COVID-19 and the need to protect the state’s excellent credit rating, she said.
But she also said the state could do more for education and vaccine rollout by raising more money — by a higher tobacco tax for example or cutting some corporate tax breaks.
The federal government is sending billions of dollars to Georgia to help pay for the extraordinary costs of dealing with COVID-19. The state has spent a lot of what’s come so far on public safety salaries, PPE and refilling the state’s unemployment insurance fund.
Kemp has also pledged to use some of about $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief education funds to grant every K-12 teacher and staff member a $1,000 bonus.
And Republican budget-writers are justifying many cuts or stagnant spending by leaning on those federal COVID-19 funds — and by saying that the future is uncertain, so it’s better keep more money on hand.
Georgia’s budget-writers in the GOP-dominated Legislature have for years been deeply conservative on spending, and don’t tend to add much that they don’t have to.
Georgia’s population and tax revenue keep rising, and that’s what tends to drive the budget higher, more students who need education and more old people who need health care.
The state House and Senate are still working on their big budget drafts, which will appear in the coming weeks.