ATLANTA — The state could avoid furloughing preschool teachers if they would be willing to absorb pay cuts rather than stay home, members of a Georgia Senate budget subcommittee suggested last Tuesday.
The Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee kicked off two weeks of hearings on 14% spending cuts agencies across state government are being asked to make to offset the loss of tax revenues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Disagreements over how and where to make those cuts surfaced immediately, with some senators pitching the idea for preschool teachers to take a salary cut instead of saving costs by reducing the school year by several days.
“I am personally very much opposed to across-the-board cuts,” said Sen. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta, who chairs the education subcommittee. “I think we need to make cuts based on the needs.”
Dozens of state agencies submitted proposals last week for budget reductions totaling about $3.5 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposals were requested by top budget-writing lawmakers in the General Assembly, who are poised to make passing the budget the top priority once the Legislature reconvenes next month.
If passed as is, the 14% cuts would translate to furloughs and layoffs for teachers, social workers, prosecutors and more, according to a review of agency proposals released last week. That would help close Georgia’s expected $3 billion to $4 billion tax revenue shortfall, though critics have called for raising revenues rather than spending cuts.
From the start of last Tuesday’s meeting, influential Republican members of the Senate education subcommittee disagreed over whether the state’s roughly 80,000 preschool students should be forced to take off 13 instructional days or whether their teachers should have smaller salaries for the time being.
In the worst-case scenario, a 14% budget reduction would slice more than $61 million from the state Department of Early Care and Learning, which oversees Georgia’s pre-kindergarten programs. To bridge that funding gap, agency officials have proposed reducing the school year by 13 days, eliminating 4,000 open slots for preschool students and closing 180 pre-K classrooms statewide, Commissioner Amy Jacobs said.
“You can imagine, that is quite an impact to Georgia’s pre-K program,” Jacobs said.
The assessment by Jacobs prompted some members of the education subcommittee to wonder whether having teachers work for less pay would be a better course than taking 13 school days away from students.
Black floated the idea of teachers taking a “special virus deduction” in their salaries to avoid the 13-day shortening of the school calendar.
“If we follow through with this, they’re going to be getting less money and the kids will be getting less education,” Ellis said. “The question is how dedicated are these teachers and are they willing to make that much of a sacrifice so these kids can get that education.”
Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, framed a teacher pay cut as a sacrifice during a tough time, without which children might suffer from fewer educational opportunities.
“Everybody has to make sacrifices on a temporary basis,” Stone said. “But we’re imposing the sacrifices on the public and in this case the children.”
But the proposition drew pushback from Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, who said pay cuts would also have to be distributed across other agencies like the state Department of Corrections. Just forcing teachers to work for less pay would not be fair, he said.
“I think we need to be very careful and look at the big picture,” Wilkinson said. “I think you’ve got to look across the board.”
For her part, Jacobs, the agency commissioner, said she doubts there would be much appetite among educators for the pay-cut plan.
“I can’t imagine that they would look favorably upon that if they’re having to work more days for less pay,” Jacobs said. “I think there needs to be a hard look at what lottery revenues look like.”
The $61 million in cuts was the bleakest of several options Jacobs gave lawmakers and would depend on whether there is a steep decline in Georgia Lottery revenues, which the agency relies on heavily. So far, lottery sales have remained stable while the pandemic continues hammering other sectors of Georgia’s economy.
The word from other agency heads who testified Tuesday was less dramatic. Several department heads told members of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee they plan to avoid layoffs or furloughs by freezing vacant positions and shifting available federal funds into positions that otherwise would face elimination.
“We wanted to avoid furloughs,” said Richard Dunn, director of the state Environmental Protection Division. “We have a lot of competition for the talent we have. I was afraid furloughs would wreck that.”
Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, whose agency faces $5.6 million in spending reductions, said he’s relying on eliminating vacancies and shifting full-time employees from jobs targeted for elimination into other duties. While some food safety inspector jobs are getting the ax, Black said meat inspectors would be exempt from the cuts.
However, the department’s marketing and promotional efforts would take a big hit. The agency’s Georgia Grown program will not have a presence this year at either the Georgia National Fair in Perry or the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Black said.
“It is unrealistic to suggest this plan will not impact services,” he said.
The full General Assembly will reconvene in mid-June to wrap up the 2020 legislative session, though an official date has not yet been set.