By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
State agencies in Georgia are being asked to cut up to $3.8 billion from their budgets to absorb the economic downturn caused by coronavirus.
The deep cuts to Georgia’s roughly $27.5 billion original 2020 fiscal year budget lawmakers passed last year come as tax revenues are expected to plummet after weeks of statewide business closures and stay-at-home orders prompted by the virus.
In a memo penned Friday, budget leaders in the General Assembly and Gov. Brian Kemp’s office directed state agencies to propose how they will cut their budgets by 14 percent. Those proposals are due May 20, around the time lawmakers are set to resume in-person committee meetings.
“While the Great Recession of 2008 was considered then to be a ‘once in a lifetime’ event, our current situation will certainly overshadow it,” the memo says. “That is why this request is being made to ALL areas of the state budget with no exceptions.”
The memo was signed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia. The governor’s budget director, Kelly Farr, also signed the memo.
State agencies were already facing budget cuts of 6% ordered by Kemp for the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Lawmakers also have largely approved 4% cuts to the state’s revised 2020 fiscal year budget that Kemp requested.
Negotiations between lawmakers over those cuts dominated the 2020 legislative session before it was suspended in mid-March. Facing the 6% cuts, agencies managed to trim costs largely by leaving vacant staff positions unfilled, upgrading technology and scaling back work-related travel.
Some agencies, particularly those dealing with mental health services and criminal justice initiatives, raised concerns that even the 6% cuts would be tough to implement without some service changes and staff furloughs.
Now, facing coronavirus-prompted cuts of more than twice that amount, agencies will almost certainly experience more painful impacts that could result in scaled-back services and layoffs.
The upcoming cuts would also include public schools and Medicaid spending, which were excluded from the most recent round of 6% cuts ordered by the governor.
Critics of the spending cuts have called for state lawmakers to instead raise revenues via taxes and by ending certain tax exemptions.
Danny Kanso, a policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), called on lawmakers to look at raising the state tax on tobacco as an alternative option to hacking away agency budgets.
“State leaders should do everything in their power to avoid making devastating cuts that would be likely to disproportionately hurt public schools and higher education — and possibly further weaken Georgia’s already-stretched-thin health care system,” Kanso said Friday.
The General Assembly is poised to resume the 2020 legislative session in mid-June with the budget as the main focus.