While the state is cutting costs this year, officials say the spending reductions are more preventative than reactive.
“Back in 2008, when I was in the Senate, we cut things pretty much to the bone. There’s been some buildup,” State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said. “But I can tell you this governor and this legislature are committed to doing cuts, but not cuts where we would reduce services for Georgia citizens.”
In 2008, state departments spoke to legislators about not wanting their budgets cut in light of the economic recession, but the Georgia General Assembly was in a tough position “knowing that we just weren’t going to have enough money for everybody,” Hawkins, chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee, said.
But now, budget cuts are more of a proactive measure, and Hawkins said Gov. Brian Kemp is “being very prudent and ahead of the curve” in requesting budget cuts of 4% for the amended fiscal year 2020 budget. For fiscal year 2021, which starts July 1, agencies will have to cut their budgets by 6%.
Health care and education are exempt from the cuts.
Education is usually about 55% of the state budget, while health care is about 22% to 24%, Hawkins said. With such a large portion of the budget exempt from the cuts, “it can hit those other departments pretty heavily,” he said.
Hawkins said that while state revenues are dipping slightly, “it’s not like 2008.”
One reason behind declining revenues now is the lingering effects of Hurricane Michael, which destroyed crops in south Georgia’s agricultural communities in 2018.
“The cotton crop alone was three quarters of a billion dollars beaten down to the ground. We lost half a billion dollars in vegetables. Over 100 chicken houses were destroyed and 2 million chickens,” Hawkins said. “79,000 acres of timber land was lost. ... You don’t plant pecan trees and get pecans the next year. It’s 15 to 20 years.”
State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said he thinks it is wiser to make cuts now, when the economy is still doing relatively well.
“The time to really take a look at a budget of any kind is during the good times, not the tough times,” he said. “I’m very much supportive — I’m a fiscal conservative, and I believe in looking anywhere that we can trim fat.”
But the cuts will still be a challenge, Dubnik said.
“I think our challenge is to be very smart but also very creative, and just because we’ve always done a budget or budgeting a certain way doesn’t necessarily, in my opinion, mean that that is the only way to do it,” he said.
Legislators will start hearing from state departments about their proposals on Jan. 21, Hawkins said.
As an example of the revenue decline, Georgia’s net tax collections in November totaled almost $1.81 billion, compared to $1.83 billion the year before, the state reported in December.
That represented a $22.4 million decrease.
“The budget cuts are a necessity because revenues aren’t keeping up with expenses,” said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “We’re going to be cutting fat — not necessary, vital services. In fact, (Georgians) will see an expansion of useful, beneficial, practical government services.”
He said more investment in classroom technology, for example, “is still on the table.”
“We’re going to look at robust education changes that are going to still be funded,” Miller said.
Better access to health care is also a priority and “we’ll be able to pay that freight, but the cuts won’t get in the way of those necessary expenses,” he added.
Jobs may not be spared in the cuts, however.
For example, the Division of Family and Children Services budget request calls for $4.4 million to cut Child Welfare Services field staff by 73 full-time equivalent positions and $1.66 million to cut 21 vacant state child welfare positions in fiscal 2021.
“I do not foresee any of the division's budget reductions having a direct effect on Hall County's operations,” said Chris Hempfling, deputy division director, in an email to The Times.
Director Tom C. Rawlings “was very clear that he wants these reductions to be implemented at the state office level with the goal of protecting our county staff so they can continue to serve Georgia's children and families,” he added.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation decided to eliminate several positions, most of which were already vacant, spokeswoman Nelly Miles said. Cuts included five positions in the Georgia Crime Information Center’s division, five positions in the Crime Lab, and 16 positions in the Investigative Division.
Even with those cuts, “it’s a proposal, and it’s very early in the budget process,” Miller said.
A major concern for the state is sales tax revenues.
“Retail sales in general are up over the internet by 6% but retail sales at brick-and-mortar stores are down 2%,” Miller said. “Very few people are paying sales tax on anything they buy on the internet.”
A state law took effect Jan. 1, 2019, requiring online retailers who ship to Georgia customers to pay sales tax if they make at least 200 sales per year or at least $250,000 per year in retail sales.
Officials are trying to determine the impact.
“It takes time for all these things to process, to run through the system,” Miller said. “Ultimately, we will pick up some additional tax revenue. We need to put some more teeth on that (2018 law) this session.”
Staff writer Megan Reed and Jeff Gill contributed to this report.