ATLANTA — Most state agency heads who appeared before legislative budget writers Tuesday vowed to do more with less to meet the spending-reduction targets Gov. Brian Kemp has set for them.
But Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black warned job losses in his department could seriously hamper the state’s No.1 industry.
On the first day of hearings on Kemp’s $28.1 billion fiscal 2021 budget plan, Black said he has been forced to eliminate 18 full-time vacancies, four part-time vacancies, phase out six employees and cut loose four call-center workers by not renewing their contract.
“These critical positions in food safety, animal industry, meat inspection and marketing were not held in reserve on the books,” Black told members of the Georgia House and Senate Appropriations Committees. “These were vacant positions we would have tried to fill, but due to a competitive job market, we have been unable to find qualified applicants.”
With state tax revenue growing far slower than had been anticipated, Kemp ordered most state agencies last summer to reduce spending by 4% during this fiscal year and 6% during fiscal 2021, which begins in July.
Most department heads who presented their budgets to lawmakers Tuesday expressed confidence they would be able to hit those targets without hurting services.
“Our cuts were designed to minimize any impact on our operations,” said Richard Dunn, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. “I believe we’ve accomplished that.”
Some lawmakers noted the difference in tone between agency heads elected by Georgia voters like Black and several Kemp-appointed department officials who spoke Tuesday afternoon.
Elected officials seemed more willing to open up about concerns over the potential impact of cuts, said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. Kemp’s department heads painted a rosier picture, she said.
“It just makes me wonder what the agency heads really think about the cuts they’ve had to make,” Jordan said after Tuesday’s hearing.
She expects a deeper dive on reduction details in upcoming subcommittee meetings might shed more light on operational and staffing impacts if the cuts take effect.
“I think there are going to be a lot of really unhappy people in this state,” Jordan said.
For his part, Black said he has never viewed “across-the-board” cuts as good strategic planning.
Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, expressed concerns over whether the job losses would affect food safety in Georgia.
“What is our obligation to the public?” she asked Black.
“You have my word that the team we have on the ground will do its job every day,” Black answered. “But with reductions in staff, you simply can’t cover the territory as frequently as you’d like to.”
Black said his budget also calls for a $161,000 cut in the popular Georgia Grown program, which markets the state’s farm products.
The agriculture department also needs $1 million to jump-start the growth of industrial hemp in Georgia, a lucrative crop the General Assembly voted to legalize last year.
Kemp’s budget proposes giving the new Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission $200,000 this fiscal year and just under $155,000 for fiscal 2021. Part of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office, the commission is the oversight arm of Georgia’s fledgling medical cannabis sector.
But those funding amounts “may be inadequate” to run the cannabis commission full-steam, Raffensperger said Tuesday, noting his staff wants a budget closer to $500,000.
Employees at the Public Service Commission would have to take five furlough days per year to meet the budget cuts, said Commissioner Chuck Eaton, who was elected chairman of the PSC on Tuesday by his commission colleagues. He said the furloughs and other cuts would make it tougher for the agency to regulate the state’s energy utilities.
“We are way down to the bone,” Eaton said at Tuesday’s hearing. “There is no discretionary spending left.”
The Department of Driver Services plans to cut nearly $1.4 million this fiscal year and $2.3 million next year by eliminating vacant staff positions in the busy license issuance branch and renewing more licenses online via the federal REAL ID program, said DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore.
“This is our effort to modernize,” Moore said.