By Dave Williams
Capitol Beat News Service
ATLANTA - The Georgia House of Representatives gave final passage Friday night to a $25.9 billion fiscal 2021 budget scaled back by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on state tax collections.
House lawmakers approved the spending plan 104-62 in one of the final actions the House took before adjourning the 2020 legislative session. The state Senate had signed off on the budget on Thursday.
While lawmakers reduced state spending by $2.2 billion during the year starting July 1, the cuts in the final version of the budget were not as deep as had been feared.
When Georgia businesses began shutting down in March to discourage the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative leaders told state department heads to begin preparing to reduce their budgets by 14%.
But after receiving the latest revenue reports showing a lower decline in tax revenues than had been expected, Kemp revised the across-the-board cuts first to 11%, then to 10% earlier this week.
That allowed legislative budget writers to avoid some key reductions, including eliminating furlough days for teachers and employees across state government, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, told his legislative colleagues before the vote.
Despite a $950 million cut in the K-12 student funding formula, the budget still fully funds student enrollment growth in Georgia’s public schools, equalization grants for low-wealth school districts and student transportation, England said.
The budget also spared the state Department of Labor from absorbing any reductions, acceding to a request by Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler, who argued successfully that his agency is being forced to process a deluge of unemployment claims resulting from the recession.
The joint House-Senate conference committee that worked out the final budget deal also restored cuts to behavioral health services and to the state’s accountability courts, which have been credited with reducing Georgia’s incarceration rate.
Rural hospitals in Georgia, which have had trouble making ends meet for years, will receive additional grant funds.
“Putting the brakes on elective surgery [during the COVID-19 crisis] has impacted rural hospitals dramatically,” England said. “We’re set in a way to help those hospitals.”
Both during Thursday’s Senate debate and again in the House on Friday, minority Democrats argued the General Assembly should have looked for sources of additional revenue as well as cutting spending. Legislation to increase the state’s tobacco tax from 37 cents per pack to $1.35 failed to reach the floor of either legislative chamber.
The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) released a statement after Friday night’s vote criticizing that over-reliance on spending reductions.
“As these cuts go into effect and Georgia’s schools, health care institutions and more are impacted, GBPI urges lawmakers to return in January and raise revenues so that our state can recover from COVID-19 and eventually prosper,” said Jennifer Owens, the group’s senior vice president.
The budget now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.
(Capitol Beat is a nonprofit news service operated by the Georgia Press Educational Foundation that provides coverage of state government through Georgia Press Association members, such as the White County News.)