ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget director on Tuesday apologized to top House budget writers, answering criticism that Kemp’s administration hasn’t been forthcoming enough with Georgia lawmakers about his spending plans.
Kelly Farr, the head of the Office of Planning and Budget, had initially refused to take questions from House and Senate lawmakers during joint hearings earlier in the session. Tuesday, he emphasized that Kemp wants him to be open and share information with lawmakers, accepting that there would some differences of opinion.
“First off, I’d like to start off with an apology,” Farr said. “The last time I was up here, I didn’t meet the expectations of what y’all thought I was going to talk about it.”
House Speaker David Ralston called a timeout in the session, with the Blue Ridge Republican setting aside this week for House budget writers to come to conclusions on amending the current year’s spending plan. The Republican Kemp ordered more than $200 million in reductions in the $27 billion-plus budget that runs through June 30. Most education and Medicaid spending is shielded from cuts. The House is likely to vote on the amended spending plan next week, before moving on to writing budget for the year beginning July 1.
“I cannot tell you how much I am encouraged by this dialogue,” House Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Clay Pirkle, an Ashburn Republican, told Farr. “It’s much better than a monologue.”
The Kemp administration has been arguing that it has been careful with its cuts, refuting claims that services would be hit hard by reductions.
“These are reductions that I would consider to be non-intrusive, meaning they shouldn’t have an impact to the public,” Farr said.
He noted that the governor’s office had rejected a number of cuts that agencies had proposed, such as proposed reductions in protective caseworkers for older people, medical clinics focused on prenatal and postnatal services, or Department of Natural Resources rangers.
Farr said he’s trying to focus on how agencies actually spend their money, pointing to decisions to cut vacant positions agencies have been unable to fill, sometimes because of low salaries.
“No matter how much you desire to fund a position, if we can’t fill it, we can’t take advantage of it, so the money just sits there,” Farr said.
The Kemp administration also focused on reducing spending on new programs that lawmakers allotted money for last year. But that’s been frustrating for lawmakers who had set aside money seeking to solve problems, as in mental health.
“The new funds were sort of our very first step at getting ahead of this,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Human Services Subcommittee.
Lawmakers also expressed concern about demands that some state agencies fall back on other funding sources. Farr said the state hopes county health departments can win more funding from county commissions and that the agriculture and cooperative extension arms of the University of Georgia can fall back on money they’ve saved.
“Some of these counties cannot afford more funding for the most basic of health care,” said Rep. David Knight, a Griffin Republican.