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Georgia House approves $159 million in midyear budget cuts

ATLANTA — The Georgia House voted Wednesday to cut the state government's budget, but also move some money around to protect lawmakers' priorities.

The House voted 126-46 to pass House Bill 792, which cuts $159 million from spending plans for the current budget year, running through June 30. The measure now moves to the state Senate for more debate.

Lawmakers were forced to cut the budget, with state revenues running behind projections. The shortfall happened, in part, because of a cut in the state's top income tax rate approved by lawmakers that has decreased revenue by more than $500 million. Gov. Brian Kemp ordered agencies to reduce spending by about $200 million during the summer, although he shielded most K-12, college and Medicaid spending from cuts. That means cuts fell more heavily on other agencies.

House members couldn't alter the $27.4 billion ceiling in state revenue that the Republican Kemp set, but shifted tens of millions of dollars from the reductions he had proposed seeking to shore up their own priorities.

“We've tried our best on this budget to address needs of Georgians and I think the budget that left the House today is a much better budget in terms of taking care of things that Georgians need than the budget that was proposed to us,” House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told reporters after the vote.

Democrats have called the budget cuts a result of what they see as an ill-founded tax cut, pushing it as an election issue months before all 236 seats in the General Assembly are up for election.

“The question will be, why do we have to cut when times are so good?” asked House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat. “What we're about to pass on is paying the tab on that tax cut.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, though, blames much of the revenue shortfall on damage from Hurricane Michael. He defended the tax cut to reporters after the vote.

“I would rather a dollar be in your pocket or my pocket for us to spend the way we want it to than us as a state be taking it and trying to spend it differently,” the Auburn Republican told reporters.

Lawmakers took money from other places, including $11 million meant to implement electronic health records in the state prison system and $2.7 million more cut from the Department Public Safety.

The House added $7.5 million back to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to bolster services for substance abuse, services to disabled adults, mental health crisis beds and autism.

Lawmakers also restored more than $3 million for educating physicians and other medical professionals, put $2.8 million back into agricultural research and extension, lessened cuts to county health boards by $2.75 million, and gave an additional $1.75 million to public defenders.

House budget writers also restored money for accountability courts that divert people from regular criminal proceedings and rejected cuts to state grants to buy library materials.

The decisions are also important for the 2021 budget that lawmakers are now writing.

“Nearly every one of these reductions is repeated,” England said of the spending plan that begins July 1.

Kemp is seeking $300 million in cuts in next year, as he looks to increase pay for teachers by $2,000 a year. Ralston has been advocating for an additional income tax cut, projected to trim $500 million to $600 million.