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Gov. Brian Kemp says state lawmakers can spend savings to ease budget cuts
04162020 Kemp
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp listens to a question from the press during a tour of a massive temporary hospital at the Georgia World Congress Center on Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press
ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp is giving lawmakers permission to spend $250 million from Georgia's rainy day fund to decrease budget cuts in the year beginning July 1.  

Kemp agreed to tap the state's piggy bank Monday, June 22, as he set a new revenue estimate for the 2021 budget year, cutting the ceiling for spending state-collected revenue from $28.1 billion to $25.9 billion.  

The Republican governor's power to set the maximum amount of revenue that Georgia's government can spend in a year is one of his key influences over how the General Assembly writes a budget. 

Kemp had to revise his estimate from what he originally set in January after state revenues tumbled during the COVID-19 pandemic. But his new estimate of $2.2 billion less in state funds is actually an improvement over earlier outlooks. It will equal a 10% funding cut for state agencies, K-12 schools, universities and colleges, down from earlier forecasts of as much as 14% reductions. 

"I recognize the difficult decisions that these reductions represent for our state agencies, higher education institutions and K-12 schools," Kemp wrote. "However, I am confident that our agency leaders can identify and implement innovative cost-saving solutions to craft a balanced budget without undermining their mission or services." 

That may be optimistic. Many state agencies expect to send workers home without pay one day a month, which would amount to an almost 5% pay cut. Universities have also projected unpaid furloughs, while many K-12 school systems have yet to make decisions. 

The state-federal Medicaid program will be fully funded, thanks to another $50 million in tobacco money that Kemp allotted Monday, plus increased federal aid because of the pandemic, but Georgia is on track for reduced capacity to treat substance abuse and mental health problems. 

The state could spend $1 billion of the $2.7 billion rainy day fund to close the budget gap for the year ending June 30. Some money will come back when Georgia collects state income taxes in July after delaying them from April. That money is supposed to be placed into the current budget, reducing the deficit. 

Kemp wrote that he was dipping further into the savings account "to mitigate the impact of this revenue decline on operations of state government and our local education authorities." 

House and Senate lawmakers are in final talks over a budget, needing to reach an agreement before the legislative session ends Friday. 

Senators have been considering other proposals to raise revenue, including eliminating more than $200 million in tax breaks and increasing taxes on cigarettes. There are also last-minute efforts to expand gambling as the 2021 meeting of the General Assembly ticks toward a conclusion. But none of those measures have passed even one legislative chamber. 

Kemp asked lawmakers to pay for increased enrollment in the state's K-12 funding formula, to set aside $15 million for a new law enforcement training grant program for state and local agencies, and to set aside $2.5 million to train a new 50-person class of state troopers. Current budget proposals eliminate trooper training as one of many savings efforts. 

The Times asked the Department of Public Safety when a trooper class would meet if approved in the budget and how it might be affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“It would be premature to discuss the ‘what ifs’ regarding the budget. When DPS has a signed budget giving it specific details on how the budget will affect the agency, we’ll discuss it then. DPS will be able to adjust accordingly regarding budget needs,” said Lt. Stephanie Stallings, Department of Public Safety public information director.

Criminal Justice Coordinating Council spokeswoman Britney Hough said the agency is “involved in communication with the governor’s office concerning this grant program,” but she did not have any additional information to add on the program.

Kemp’s budget recommendation also includes the elimination of a “proposed increase to the state base salaries of Pre-K, K-12 teachers and non-certified school employees,” but when The Times asked Gainesville City Schools superintendent Jeremy Williams how this would affect expected raises for school employees, he wrote via text that GCSS “will continue to award increases in salaries and degree advancement for all of our employees.”

Williams also wrote that based on Kemp’s recommended 10% decrease in funding to the Quality Basic Education program would result in an approximate reduction of $5 million in state funds for the school system. He said that GCSS would use money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security act, as well as local property taxes and the school system’s reserve to offset the decrease in funding. 

Hall County Schools superintendent Will Schofield could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.