Balancing state programs and new priorities in the state budget this coming legislative session will not be easy, according to House Speaker David Ralston.
“People that haven’t been around for a budget-cutting session are going to be in for a real surprise,” he said.
Speaking to media Thursday, Ralston was cautious about promising too many new items in the state budget, given the governor’s request that most state agencies cut their budgets.
For example, there’s still $2,000 left to fulfill of Gov. Brian Kemp’s promised teacher pay raises, of which $3,000 was awarded last year.
“Even though it’s a laudable goal–I hope that we’re able to do that–I don’t know that we will be able to do that this session,” Ralston said.
He had a similar answer related to a recent proposal to address the state’s high maternal mortality rate by extending Medicaid coverage to mothers up to one year postpartum.
“Obviously the budget kind of constrains what we can do in that regard,” he said of the idea. “The question becomes, is this the year we can do that, and I think that remains to be seen because, as I said earlier, we can’t do everything.”
Any budget cuts are not to be taken lightly, he reinforced.
“We always have to keep in mind the budget is about more than numbers and percentages. Those programs that are important to people,” he said.
At the same time, Ralston said he believes the legislature made a “commitment” to the people of Georgia to cut the state income tax rate again this year. In a 2018 tax cut, the legislature gave itself the option to make an additional cut in 2020.
“I’m hopeful that we can do that. I know there’s a lot of support in the house to do that,” he said. “Over the past 10 or so years, we’ve been very, very conservative in how we manage the state’s budget.
“And so I think we have taken care of our priorities as a state, but we’ve done it in a very responsible and conservative way. So I do rankle a little bit when I hear people talk about ‘wasteful spending,’ because I’m still trying to find it, and I have been for 10 years now.”
Ralston also addressed some of the ideas to find new revenues to offset some of the mandated cuts.
Legalizing gambling is one such issue.
Ralston said while it has been talked about for many years, “one of these days we’re either going to have to say we’re going to quit talking, or we’re going to vote it, and however, it comes out is how it comes out.”
“At some point, I think it is appropriate to let the people of Georgia have the final word,” he said.
Ralston added he believes it makes the most sense to include all three gaming options on the table, casino gambling, sports betting and horse racing on any proposal.
Adjusting the film and television tax incentive package is another idea for new revenue. Ralston said he’d be open to tweaking it, but would block any bill to do away with it.
“I was asked the other day if I would favor abolishing it, and the answer is an unequivocal no. Because what we have to understand is at the other end of that tax credit is Georgians working,” he said.
Related to passing new taxes on “marketplace facilitators” like Uber, Airbnb and Lyft, Ralston said he’s “optimistic.” A report from the state auditor last spring said last year’s proposal to do just that would generate $86 million in state revenue in FY 2020.
But he rebuffed the idea of increasing a tobacco tax.
“I don’t want to get into tax increases,” he said. “My general inclination is tax increases are non-starters.”
Georgia has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country.
Ralston also dismissed two divisive pieces of legislation from the last session: an attempted airport takeover by the state government and religious freedom legislation, which got stuck in the state senate last year.
He said state oversight of the airport in the form of something like MARTOC, a joint committee with oversight of MARTA’s budget, would be a better option, and called religious freedom legislation “a solution in search of a problem.”