Budget cuts threaten state jobs, services

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State agencies are no stranger to budget cut mandates, after the Governor's Office ordered 4% across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2020, which ends June 30, followed by 6% for the upcoming fiscal year.

ATLANTA — The state may lay off more than a thousand employees and furlough thousands more, as lawmakers brace for severe budget cuts in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State agencies are no stranger to budget cut mandates, after the Governor’s Office ordered 4% across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2020, which ends June 30, followed by 6% for the upcoming fiscal year.

But things have gotten far worse.

Since those mandates, the financial toll of the pandemic upped the ante, and in a memo sent to state agencies from appropriations leaders and the Office of Planning and Budget, agencies were asked to more than double that 6% cut — lawmakers looking to slash $3.5 billion in spending after April tax revenues plummeted.

The details of where those cuts will be made were to be submitted to the administration by May 20.

In budget documents, agency heads were vocal about the extensive impact that cuts will have both on employees and services for Georgians, especially during a health crisis.

"I don’t think I need to tell you that these cuts will be hard on our staff and our providers," Tom Rawlings, director of the Division of Family and Children Services, said.

The division's staff may be required to take two furlough days a month at minimum, some even more.

Instead of submitting a revised fiscal year 2021 proposal, Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler made a plea for an exemption, saying the agency is “front and center” in the pandemic crisis and has had to ramp up operations while operating on “critically low levels” of staff and funds.

Since 2012, the department has lost nearly half its staff and is now scrambling to process a flood of unemployment claims as Georgia’s unemployment rate reached record levels, nearly 12%.

“GDOL (the Georgia Department of Labor) is in the headlines each day amid the agony and despair felt by Georgians who have lost access to their regular income,” he wrote. “Additional budget reductions of 14% (the mandated amount) would have a devastating impact on the ability to address the workload in a timely and efficient manner.”

The Georgia Public Defender Council also requested an exemption from the cuts, saying the “fiscal and social consequences of COVID-19 and its lingering stresses will lead to a substantial increase in demand for GPDC attorneys as newly indigent persons come into contact with the legal system.”

Like the Department of Labor, the Department of Public Health is facing the brunt of the pandemic as the agency leading the fight against the coronavirus. According to its proposed 14% cut, for next year the agency would lose nearly $36.5 million.

The cuts include almost $18 million to county health departments working on the ground to combat the virus in their communities, largely taking on the roles of testing and contact tracing.

Department staff are subject to furloughs, including those in epidemiology and infection control divisions. The Georgia Poison Control Center would lose nearly $50,000 while it fields pandemic-specific calls like reports of illness due to consumption of cleaning products.

Unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak, $1.5 million to combat the state’s maternal mortality crisis and more than $1 million to treat maternal depression in rural and underserved areas is on the line.

The commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disability, Judy Fitzgerald, called the original 4% and 6% cuts “painful” and noted to lawmakers during testimony in appropriations hearings that it was not possible to cut funds “without a reduction of services to individuals in this state.”

With the 14% cuts, the department would eliminate 367 positions and more than 1,500 beds across programs. Maintenance of the abandoned mental hospitals in Thomasville and Rome would also end.

The Department of Revenue noted in its budget proposal that it would eliminate 92 positions.

The Department of Defense outlined plans in its response to close its Youth Challenge Academy in Milledgeville which will impact 56 employees but save more than $1.4 million. The department said it would do its best to move employees elsewhere.

In an effort to slash more than $169 million, the Department of Corrections proposed consolidating six facilities and moving staff and inmates elsewhere.

The Secretary of State's office, vocal about the toll election litigation is taking on the state's funds, may have to cut more than $940,000 from its elections operations while forced to pay $36,000 to store the state's old voting machines at the order of a court.

"That's nearly half a million dollars a year which is essentially approaching 10% of the entire elections budget for the state," Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Secretary of State, told CNHI. "... It's weighing on us, we're concerned, and we're doing everything we can to make sure nothing touches elections."

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.

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