Kemp seeks to restore more than half of Georgia school cuts

ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Brian Kemp want to restore more than half of Georgia's cuts to K-12 education made last year, on top of the $1,000 bonuses he wants to pay to teachers from federal money.

With tax collections running substantially ahead of what was predicted last spring, the Republican Kemp on Thursday proposed to add a net of $650 million to the current year's budget, boosting state spending to $26.3 billion. Kemp proposes a $27.2 billion budget for the 2022 year beginning July 1, $935 million above current spending levels.

Legislative leaders had been signaling that schools could hope to recoup at best a third of the $950 million that was cut from Georgia’s K-12 funding formula last June, part of 10% cuts that were made basically across the board. Kemp, though, wants to give $567 million more to schools in the remaining months of the current budget year.

Kemp proposes total funding to the formula of $69 million less in the 2022 budget, in recognition of an enrollment decline. Like Republican legislative leaders, Kemp is declining a request from some school leaders to not monetarily penalize school districts for enrolling fewer students this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Enrollment is likely to rebound at least partially next fall, because a large chunk of the student decline was related to kindergartners who were never enrolled in schools. That could mean lawmakers face a bill for a large midyear adjustment in January 2022.

Kemp's proposals for this year and next year would leave Georgia’s Quality Basic Education formula more than $300 million short of full funding each year, a point of criticism for Democrats.

“We can acknowledge the fact that we need to restore $600 million back to the budget, but you took a billion out. Put the billion back,” said House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat.

Kemp is proposing $1,000 payments to teachers and education workers all the way down to bus drivers using $240 million in federal coronavirus relief, $180 million coming from a pot controlled by the state Board of Education and $60 million coming from a pot controlled by Kemp. State Superintendent Richard Woods said the funds would be allocated to school districts and required to be spent on the bonus payments, with him asking the state board to act in February.

Kemp promised teachers a $5,000-a-year pay raise when he ran for office in 2018 and so far lawmakers have agreed to $3,000.

State tax collections are on track to run almost $1.5 billion ahead of projections this year, and Kemp does not propose to spend all that money, sharing concerns that income tax refunds could be larger than normal this spring. If refunds don't rise, though, Georgia could find itself with a substantial surplus that would end up in the rainy day fund, even as most agencies don't get back cuts that were made last year.

“Georgia has a longstanding history of budgeting conservatively and I think this is a reflection of that," Budget Director Kelly Farr said.

Kemp is proposing no tax increases, again spurning a push to increase tobacco taxes.

Georgia currently has $3 billion in its savings account, according to figures from the Kemp administration, although that amount is scheduled to fall with a $250 million mid-year withdrawal for K-12 schools. Kemp and lawmakers had agreed to withdraw $100 million from the savings account to pay for pandemic-related expenses, and $250 million to prop up general state spending, mainly in an effort to avoid employee furloughs and layoffs. However, Kemp's office says tax collections have been so strong that none of that money has ever been withdrawn.

Kemp proposes nearly $400 million more for Medicaid in 2022. That includes $74 million for the first year of a plan to expand Medicaid coverage to some poor adults.

Universities and technical colleges will get boosts to account for enrollment growth and more buildings to maintain, but Kemp is proposing flat funding for most state agencies even after 10% budget cuts last year. The Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities, where cuts caused some of the worst outcry last year, would get only a few incremental improvements including 100 new slots to help developmentally disabled adults live independently.

The Department of Public Health, on the front lines of the pandemic, would see a less than $1 million increase in state money. Farr said the department is currently floating on a tide of federal COVID-19 relief funding and the state will evaluate long-term needs going forward.

“A lot of this money that the federal government’s given directly to DPH is going to allow them a lot of flexibility to address some issues that they may have brought up through this like staffing and technology and things like that,” Farr said.