Georgia’s elected officials are facing a double whammy of coping with the coronavirus while running their reelection campaigns. Adding to challenge is the budget shortfall resulting from loss of tax revenues during the shutdown of businesses.
For the first 10 months of the current fiscal year ending June 30, state revenue is down about $680 million, or 3.4%. That shortfall is expected to reach $2 billion or more, according to Jeffery Dorfman, state economist and University of Georgia professor. And revenues will drop by as much as 10% in the first quarter of 2021 starting July 1 versus the first quarter or FY 2020 — which would add about $600 million to the shortfall, Dorfman told state budget writers. “We expect we are near the bottom now,” he said, “but it will take us a little while to get back to normal.”
The good news for Gov. Brian Kemp and legislators working on the budget is that the state has a rainy day reserve fund of $2.7 billion. About half of that — from $1 billion to $1.5 billion – will likely be needed to take care of government salaries and services through the final month of this fiscal year ending June 30, Dorfman projects. Also on the positive side, in July the state should recoup most of an estimated $1.35 billion in state income taxes likely deferred in April.
Virtual meetings are being conducted by state budget writers under pressure to get their budget done by the June 30 fiscal year-end. State agencies have been told by legislative appropriations chairmen and the Office of Planning and Budget director to plan for 14% budget cuts amounting to more than $3.5 billion in the next fiscal year. The governor will provide his revenue estimate for the next fiscal year after May collections are tallied. At that point, the governor and state budget writers will have a better grasp of what they need to do going forward.
As Kemp and state Republican leaders tried to cope with the urgent issues involved in keeping the government running, they got unsettling news about Georgia’s presidential and senatorial races in a poll commissioned by a PAC backing Kemp. The poll by Public Opinion Strategies early this month showed Democrat Joe Biden was supported by 47% of the voters versus 46% for President Trump with 5% undecided and two percent declining to answer. The margin of error in the poll was 4%.
The poll also showed a surprisingly tight race for U.S. Sen. David Perdue when matched against Democrat front-runner Jon Ossoff. Perdue led by a 43-41% margin, within the margin of error. For voters itching to wrest the other Senate seat from incumbent Kelly Loeffler — appointed by Gov. Kemp over the objections of many Republicans — the poll showed Loeffler in a dead heat with her major GOP challenger, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. Collins polled 19% to Loeffler’s 18% while Democrat Matt Lieberman (son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman) had 17%. They led a 21-candidate field in the “jungle primary” open to all comers. The question is: Which two of the three at the top will wind up in a runoff to decide the winner of the seat vacated by former Sen. Johnny Isakson at the end of last year?
An earlier internal poll for the Georgia House GOP caucus showed a bare majority of 51% supporting Kemp’s decision in April allowing some businesses to reopen with 47% disagreeing. But about three-quarters agreed businesses should reopen only if the followed strict health measures including face masks, limiting customers and social distancing. Kemp’s decision to lift the shelter-in-place order for most Georgians was supported by 58% with 41% disapproving.
This is no time for the faint of heart in Georgia politics. It is a time of testing the voter appeal of experienced officeholders and challengers seeking to win those offices. Out of this crucible, our hope is that the best candidates will win.