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House panels reject some Kemp cuts in current Georgia budget

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ATLANTA – Members of the Georgia House of Representatives are rejecting some midyear budget cuts proposed by Gov. Brian Kemp, saying the Republican governor wanted to cut too deeply on some items.

Three subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee made recommendations Thursday for amendments to the current budget, which runs through June 30.

Kemp is proposing more than $200 million in midyear reductions in state spending, citing a shortfall in projected state tax revenues. That’s not a very large slice of the more than $27 billion in state tax revenue Georgia’s state government will spend this year. But most K-12, college, university and Medicaid spending was exempted from the cuts, meaning they will fall harder on remaining agencies.

House subcommittees on Thursday recommended cuts, but some were not as deep as Kemp had proposed, putting back more than $2.8 million that the governor wanted to cut. The entirety of the House’s budget math will become clear Tuesday, with the remaining subcommittees and then the full Appropriations Committee scheduled to vote on amendments to the current spending plan. Those decisions will include services that lawmakers have publicly worried over, including agricultural research, public defenders, the state crime lab, mental health assistance and substance abuse programs

Many of Kemp’s proposed savings would come from eliminating more than 1,200 employee positions that are vacant but funded. Lawmakers, though, say agencies need money to try to fill some of those slots, despite concerns over low salaries.

House members reduced cuts to the state Department of Agriculture from $1.81 million to $1.04 million, adding back money for five food safety inspectors and two animal industry inspectors after Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black had warned that reductions could mean unacceptably long gaps between inspections at grocery stores and other venues.

The House actions also give clues to the spending plan for the 2021 budget year beginning July 1. For example, Thursday, House members added $200,000 for the state’s hemp growing program. Black had said he needs $800,000 a year guaranteed for two years before the U.S. Department of Agriculture will approve Georgia’s hemp regulations. Since about a quarter of the current year will remain after the amended budget is passed, that could signal the full $800,000 is coming next year.

Some other cuts were deeper, though, with lawmakers recommending reductions to state charter school funding and to state scholarships for students with special education needs to match current enrollment numbers.

Kemp wants to cut more than $300 million from agencies next year while also funding pay raises for teachers and low-paid state employees.

House committees also added back nearly $1.5 million for the state schools for the deaf and blind, with subcommittee Chairman Robert Dickey saying it was unfair for those schools to be cut when regular K-12 funding wasn’t touched.

“We thought these students deserved the same treatment,” said the Musella Republican.

Subcommittees also restored more than $300,000 to the Public Service Commission, enough to prevent employees from being furloughed without pay for five days through June. They also put money back for the state Commission on the Holocaust and gave the Forestry Commission more money than Kemp wanted for maintenance and emergency fire equipment.