House Approves Midyear Budget That Minimizes Governor’s Cuts

Feb 19, 2020

The Georgia House of Representatives passed an updated budget for the rest of this fiscal year that rejects many reductions Gov. Brian Kemp proposed as part of an overall plan to cut back on government spending.

HB 792, which covers the budget through June 30, passed 126 to 46 and now heads to the state Senate, which will craft its own version.

The state budget process has been an especially fraught endeavor this legislative session, as Kemp’s calls for a 4% reduction for some agencies this year and a 6% cut next fiscal year was also paired with a push for an additional teacher pay raise, one of Kemp’s campaign promises.

Speaking to colleagues on the House floor, Appropriations Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn) said the $27.5 billion FY 2020 budget was slashed by $159 million to match slow revenue collections.

“The governor’s determination that the revenue estimate needs to be adjusted is the prudent thing to do, although we found maybe the method and the mass messaging for executing it might have needed just a little bit of clarification.,” he said. “Every year we comb this budget looking for efficiencies.”

Some of those efficiencies outlined in the governor’s budget proposal were added back after a weeklong hiatus that saw the legislature hold more budget meetings.

In that time, lawmakers heard from agency heads about the need to fund services that affect Georgians, especially mental health and criminal justice initiatives.

One line item that lowers the budget several million dollars is an updated formula for the state’s public K-12 education system, something the legislature plans to continue fully funding with both this year and next year’s spending plans.

There are also more than 1,250 vacant positions across the state’s myriad agencies that would be eliminated, but England warned that it would be “disingenuous” to say cutting funding and those positions would not be felt by Georgians.

The House itself would also take a 4% cut, saving nearly $800,000 by “reducing personal services.”

But other programs saw funding restored in the chamber’s version of the budget, like the state’s accountability courts, rural agriculture programs and food safety inspectors.

Minority Leader Bob Trammel (D-Luthersville) said the headline coming out of the House vote should be focused on the lagging revenue that led to reductions being made.

“Revenue misses are a big deal, and the $159 million that we’re about to cut in this supplemental budget aren’t just dollars and cents, they have names and they live in our district,” he said. “The question will be ‘Why did we have to cut when times were so good?’”

More than $12 billion of the state’s revenue comes from individual income tax, and collections in the state have been lowered through a quarter-percent tax cut approved by the legislature in 2018.

Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s session, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said an additional quarter-percent tax cut this year is still on the table.

“I view that as a commitment that we made to the people of Georgia, the taxpayers of Georgia two years ago,” he said.

Ralston also said he was proud of the appropriations process so far and that the House did a good job restoring some of the proposed cuts that would affect state services.

“I think the amended budget that left the House is a much better budget in terms of taking care of things that Georgians need than the budget that was proposed to us,” he said.

The next big challenge for House budget writers will be tackling the FY 2021 budget, which could include both the tax cut that could lower state revenue by more than half a billion dollars and the teacher pay raise which could raise spending by more than $350 million.