This week Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget cuts became more of a reality as state agency heads outlined exactly what they’re having to do with less money.
Some seemed confident they would be able to handle the cuts through things like cutting office expenses and ditching unused landlines, but others painted a more somber picture, with layoffs and elimination of needed but vacant positions.
The mandated budget cuts are because of a shortfall in state income. The legislature is now reviewing the governor’s budget proposal, which includes a $2,000 pay raise for teachers and a $1,000 pay raise for state employees making less than $40,000 per year.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black was blunt about what the cuts will mean for his department.
“Over the next 18 months, there will be fewer food safety inspections. There’ll be fewer animal industry inspections,” he said. “The span between fuel pump and scale inspections will grow, and the growing demand for meat inspections will have to shift to our federal partners.”
His department laid off six people and eliminated 25 unfilled part-time and full-time jobs.
Black also said the state would not be able to receive federal approval for a new industrial hemp program without $1,000,000 in funds secured.
The Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates the state’s utilities, has to implement furlough days to meet the mandated reductions.
Commissioner Chuck Eaton is chairman and said the budget is “down to the bone.”
“During the Great Recession, the PSC reduced employees from 106 to 80. Currently, we have 83 positions filled,” he said. “So, in other words, we are virtually at the same staffing level as we were in the pit of the recession.”
He reminded lawmakers that the less staff, the less ability the commission has to negotiate with the state’s utilities on things like customer rates.
“I know you’ve heard from a lot of agencies today, but we are way down to the bone. It’s really just about labor at this point. There is no discretionary spending left,” he said.
“So respectfully, I’d ask that you consider our PSC budget, how small it is relative to its impact across the state.”
Lawmakers also heard about reductions to the state’s public defender program, including frozen vacancies and a statewide furlough day.
“Can we assure in this budget that people who are accused and need the services of the public defender’s office are going to get those services?” asked Democratic state Rep. Carolyn Hugley.
Interim public defender council director Jimmonique Rodgers responded to that question.
“To be honest, I cannot guarantee that. We will work to the best of our ability to identify efficiencies,” Rodgers said.
The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is cutting more than $80 million over the two fiscal years, which would mean a reduction in services for people in need. Department commissioner Judy Fitzgerald called the cuts “painful.”
Republican state Rep. Darlene Taylor reacted strongly to the reductions.
“Spoonful of sugar is not going to make this go down,” she said. “We have so many needs that are un-met now, particularly in rural communities; we need to go back and look at this because this is just not going to work.”
“The commitment I can make to you is that every dollar that you give [the department], we will be transparent about how we’re spending it, and we will do our best to get it directly into providing direct services to people in need that we all care about in this state,” Fitzgerald said.