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Georgia Legislature agrees on budget with $2.2 billion cuts

Maggie Lee
Capitol Views by Kelly Jordan
Schools can look for a lot less state money this year. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

Georgia will avoid furloughing the state employees in its charge during the next year. But there’s still going to be about $2.2 billion less in the budget compared to the state’s pre-COVID spending projection.

“There’s nothing easy about cutting 10 percent out of a budget,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, presenting the roughly $26 billion budget Friday night.

Faced with a COVID-19 recession that’s driven down the state’s tax take, the GOP-controlled state Legislature cut spending.

But Democrats said the state should have looked at raising more revenues.

As schools are the biggest single cost, they take the single biggest cut in the budget.

City and county public schools will get about $950 million less from the state’s main school funding stream for the year beginning July 1.

The second-biggest school funding stream is “equalization” grants for systems where there’s not much of a property tax base to speak of.

Equalization grants won’t be cut. In fact, they’ll rise step with population, as all school funding would if the state fully funded its education formulas.

And it’s true that federal COVID-19 aid to schools will come to something like $411 million. But that’s supposed to be tied, loosely maybe, to new pandemic costs.

So between the shock of having to switch to distance learning, more costs and less state funds, it’s too early to say how every school district will cope.

That protection of equalization grants is unquestionably a good thing, said Claire Suggs of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a trade group with more than 95,000 members.

But in some districts, especially places more dependent on state money, furloughs might be a possibility, she said.

If public school parents come to realize that their schools are suffering financial pain out of this budget, Suggs suggested they contact their lawmakers. Education funding is complex and not every lawmaker specializes in it.

“When they hear from people who are connected to public education, I think that they do listen,” Suggs said.

Republicans presented the budget as tough but still serving the needs of Georgians.

“Georgia and Georgians are resilient,” said state Sen. Blake Tillery, the Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We see this currently with our teachers serving meals, our state employees working from home or battling against the spread of disease, our local and state public safety officers and National Guard working to protect us daily,” Tillery said.

But even without furloughs, the state’s not going to be a rosy place to work. Unfilled positions won’t be filled and the budget already assumes in several places that there will be staff attrition and reductions in force. It’ll be up to court circuits to decide how to distribute some judicial cuts.

Throughout the budget, raises are cancelled, even the $2,000 for teachers that was part of a key campaign promise from Gov. Brian Kemp. And the $1,000 raise for state employees making less than $40,000. Even modest 2% raises meant to try and stop the massive turnover in hard-to-fill jobs, like one category of child welfare worker with a 36% annual turnover. Or the 95% annual turnover rate among juvenile corrections officers.

The budget also draws $250 million from the state’s rainy day fund and $50 million from a tobacco settlement fund.

Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson from Stone Mountain, said the budget is a product of the past tax cuts and other actions of the state Legislature.

A recent income tax cut made it very difficult, even before COVID, to fund operations this year, he said.

“If we’re going to look to be a rich state, healthy state, prosperous state, then we need not only look at how we cut the budget, but how we strengthen the state,” Henson said Thursday. “And some funding is necessary.”

Democrats — and some Republicans — have suggested closing special interest tax breaks, generally the breaks given to some or other industry to woo it to Georgia. There’s even been some cross-aisle agreement that tobacco taxes should be higher.

“Cutting resources that people rely on every day will only hurt those who need it most and make it harder for Georgia to recover,” read part of a statement from the House Democratic Caucus.

The House approved the budget Friday, 104-62. The Senate had passed it Thursday, 40-13.

The budget now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.

Documents:

FY 21 budget documents from state House Budget Office

Contact information and district map for every state lawmaker

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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