Georgia lawmakers agree to school cuts, say no to employee permits

Georgia House and Senate leaders agreed Thursday on a final budget for the upcoming fiscal year that cuts $ 950 million in basic funding for elementary and secondary school, but does not compel state agencies to suspend staff.

That’s great news for tens of thousands of state workers, some of whom hoped to have weeks off without getting paid. If there are still permits next year in the Georgia University System, it will be up to the Board of Regents.

Budget writers also said that most school systems have federal reserves and money to help offset cuts in state funding.

The $ 26 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2021, which begins Wednesday, would reduce spending by $ 2.2 billion to meet the expected decline in revenue due to the coronavirus recession.

But budget writers eliminated or mitigated some of the most talked-about proposed reductions, including licenses for tens of thousands of state employees, such as state patrollers and public health workers who have spent the past three months fighting the pandemic.

Some of the cuts to public and mental health, autism and substance abuse programs, areas particularly affected by previous budget plans, also decreased. The proposed cuts to physician training programs were eliminated, and some vacant positions scheduled to be eliminated, such as those for laboratory scientists at the Georgia Bureau of Research, would receive the green light to fill.

House of Representatives Appropriations Speaker Terry England, R-Auburn, said Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent estimate, which showed that the drop in revenue would not be as bad as previously expected, allowed budget writers Avoid asking employees to take days off without pay.

Lawmakers and agencies originally had planned cuts of 14%, but Kemp cut the figure to 10% this week. It also agreed to invest about $ 250 million in reserve funds in the state budget. That helped mitigate what the agencies had to cut.

"Past tax cuts have put us in a vulnerable position," Henson told colleagues. "Many of us are frustrated with this budget because we ask that you review some of the tax breaks for special interest groups."

Some Senate Republicans considered cutting special interest tax exemptions, but House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, made it clear that his house would not consider such cuts, saying that doing so would be a "job killer" .

The state spends more than half of its tax dollars on schools: kindergarten through 12th grade, universities, and technical colleges.

While elementary and secondary school core funds would be reduced by $ 950 million, programs designed to provide low-income districts with more money would increase. The budget would also not reduce funding for student transportation.

Still, some school districts, particularly in rural areas with little property tax base, may face difficult decisions. During the Great Recession, some of them laid off and suspended teachers, cut programs, and shortened the school year.

"Our Legislature had an opportunity to spread the sacrifice and look for ways to increase income, but instead decided to balance the budget at the expense of our children's education," said John Palmer, a Cobb County educator and spokesman. TRAGIC group of teachers.

"This senior class will graduate after suffering more than $ 10 billion in austerity cuts," said Palmer. "They deserve better from our Legislature."

But House Speaker Jan Jones, a Milton Republican, said most school systems have built healthy reserves in recent years. And schools also received more than $ 400 million from the federal government when the CARES Act was passed at the start of the pandemic, authorities said.

"I don't expect students across Georgia to know we had a (state) reduction," Jones said.

England said it would be disappointed to see districts without teachers.

"These are local decisions. They will have to deal with them as best they can, ”he said. "There shouldn't be any (school) system right now making permits."

Budget writers also scrapped plans to cut grants to county health departments, and funded the extension of Medicaid to low-income mothers two to six months after delivery, said the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Blake Tillery, Republican of Vidalia.

Doctors say that period is when conditions like postpartum depression and high blood pressure, when not treated, can be fatal for new moms. Georgia's maternal mortality rate has long been ranked among the top U.S. states, and a bipartisan state study committee recently found that 60% of the state's maternal deaths between 2012 and 2014 were preventable.

Lawmakers also chose not to cut $ 1 million from the public defense system's appeals office, avoiding what some lawyers predicted would have led to litigation against the state for the right to a lawyer.

Members of the General Assembly would see their $ 17,000 wages cut 10% this year under the spending plan, and Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan's $ 90,000 salary would drop 14%. The budget would also reduce salary money for those who make more than $ 100,000 a year on some judicial budgets.

Kemp asked budget writers to include $ 15 million to establish a grant program to pay for better training for state and local law enforcement, and $ 2.47 million for a new class of state soldiers in the coming year.

The governor also recommended that lawmakers approve borrowing an additional $ 139 million for maintenance and repair work on state facilities, state railroads, and bridges to meet infrastructure needs.

The budget includes about $ 1.13 billion in loans for construction projects, much of it for schools and colleges.