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Pared-down Georgia budget riles up Dems … and some Republicans

Maggie Lee
An exterior view of the state Capitol in Atlanta An exterior view of the state Capitol in Atlanta. (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
The state Capitol in Atlanta. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

The GOP-led Georgia Legislature’s working budget plans to cut state spending by $2.6 billion. It would furlough employees, and trim almost everything as the Covid Recession downsizes state revenue. But Democrats are saying there’s a better way to do things.

“Our state’s budget must balance. We don’t hold the keys to a printing press,” said state Sen. Blake Tillery, the Vidalia Republican who chairs the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

That is, Georgia can only spend as much money as it gets from sales taxes, income taxes, lottery ticket sales and so on. There’s some limited borrowing for new buildings or road works, but that’s about it. But Georgia can’t print money like the federal government can.

Before COVID-19, state leaders were looking at a budget of maybe $28.1 billion, counting all state funds.

The trimmed-down version reflects a call for across-the-board cuts from Georgia’s House and Senate Republican appropriations leadership and the Republican governor. The call came after the economic cost of COVID-19 started to become clear.

The Senate version of the budget cuts $1.2 billion from the bucket of money that Georgia sends to k-12 school systems. Because the cuts are roughly the same 11 percent for every department, the cuts from the biggest expenditure — education— is the biggest single number.

Some schools will almost certainly take furlough days or freeze hiring or other drastic measures, as they get less money from the state. Those decisions will be made in the coming weeks and months by each city and county school district.

Thousands of state employees from state troopers to park rangers to child welfare workers will take unpaid leave in the coming year. Tillery said the Senate’s general strategy was to approve no more than one furlough day a month where furloughs couldn’t be avoided.

The House’s exact posture on the budget will become clear in negotiations with the Senate in the coming days.

The budget passed Tillery’s Senate panel unanimously Wednesday — even the Democrats present raised their hands.

But by Friday, Democrats had turned from grumbling to voting “no.”  The whole caucus voted against the budget on the state Senate floor. As with most things, no Democrat votes are necessary to pass the budget because both chambers are majority-Republican.

Yet the protest votes came with growing Democrat calls to “look at revenue.” Or in English: get more money from somewhere.

If Georgia would “throw open the windows, raise the blinds and look around at other states,” it would find ways to make do besides “draconian” cuts, said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, from the Senate floor Friday.

She called for the state to expand Medicaid (which would draw down federal matching funds), raise the cigarette tax and cut tax exemptions given to particular industries (or industry in general.)

House Democrats had been saying similar things all week.

And actually, some Republicans have been saying some things like that too.

The state Senate Finance Committee on Friday endorsed taking the cigarette tax from 37 cents per pack up to $1.35 per pack.

The day before, the same committee approved ending some tax breaks for interests like yacht manufacturers and builders of housing for low-income folks.

The most powerful person across the hall, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had already rejected both ideas. On cigarettes, he said he is not one for raising taxes. On the second, he said he had asked his staff to calculate how many jobs it would kill.

But, who knows, maybe the idea of ending some such tax cuts will end up in a House-Senate conference committee, as predicted by state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, during the Thursday Finance Committee hearing.

It would have to be fast. The Legislature needs to finish the budget by the end of the month.

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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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