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As virus spreads, so does gloomy outlook for Georgia budget

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ATLANTA — Deaths and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia continued to increase Saturday, even as lawmakers tried to grapple with what the pandemic will mean for state finances.

State House Speaker David Ralston and the top budget writers in the House and Senate said efforts to cut income taxes or increase pay for teachers or other state employees are probably dead for this year. They all assume state revenues for the upcoming budget year beginning July 1 are likely to dive from previous projections, and say even the patched-up budget for the rest of this year may overflow again with red ink.

“I think the initiatives we talked about in the version we passed are not going to go forward,” Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told The Associated Press on Friday. “That includes the teacher pay raise and the 2% merit raise (for other state employees) and the tax cut.”

The number of deaths in Georgia caused by the new coronavirus rose to 79 Saturday evening, more than doubling in three days, according to data from the state Department of Public Health. The number of confirmed infections rose to 2,446, more than doubling in three days. Cases were reported in 110 of Georgia's 159 counties.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

The outbreak, on a per-capita basis, continued to be most severe in southwest Georgia. Dougherty County, which includes Albany, reported 224 cases. That's behind Fulton County's 378 cases and DeKalb County's 246 cases in total numbers. But on a per-capita basis, according to AP calculations, Dougherty County has a confirmed infection rate that remains more than 10 times as high as the statewide numbers. Of the state's top 10 counties in per-capita infections, eight are in southwest Georgia, and 29 of the state's 79 deaths are in that region.

Albany-based Phoebe Putney Health System said a third Georgia National Guard team arrived Saturday, with 29 medically trained troops now aiding its hard-pressed Albany hospital. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steven Kitchen said Saturday that the hospital's intensive care units remain full and it had eight regular beds available for COVID-19 patients.

“We continue to see a lot of patients coming into our emergency room,” Kitchen said in a webcast news conference.

Although Gov. Brian Kemp has declined to impose a statewide stay-at-home order, the Atlanta suburbs of DeKalb County and Gwinnett County did so on Friday and Saturday. The cities of Atlanta and Savannah, plus Athens-Clarke County, Cobb County, Dougherty County and others did so earlier.

An inmate in a Wheeler County state prison and another inmate in the DeKalb County jail were reported as infected. Gwinnett County quarantined 46 work release inmates after a resident of their dorm tested positive and was sent home.

Lawmakers have already had a close encounter with the coronavirus, with at least five senators and one House member sickened. Lawmakers were considering a return to the capitol around April 15 after they suspended the session in mid-March. But Ralston and others say that's now too soon.

“Members have a lot of concern about the public health risk of assembling at a time when community spread is very high," said House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat.

A delay is OK by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, both Republicans. They say they have been in close communication with Kemp's administration, but said projecting revenues for the upcoming year is impossible until some tax data comes in. Setting the revenue estimate is Kemp's job, but a spokesman said Office of Planning and Budget Director Kelly Farr wouldn't be available to reporters until later.

“Nobody knows what we're up against," said England, who's from Auburn. March sales tax numbers won't be available until late April, and those could be propped up by panic buying. Lawmakers have until June 30 to pass a budget, but Hill said they're likely to pass a stripped-down budget before then “and be prepared to revise it.”

“It's going to be reminiscent of the budgets in the recession,” said Hill, who's from Reidsville. Those spending plans saw deep cuts, with many services saved from total elimination only by infusions of federal aid.

There could be further revisions to the revised budget Kemp signed for the current year, which cut $159 million amid already slowing revenues. That spending plan took $100 million out of Georgia's $2.8 billion savings account to fight COVID-19, but England and Hill said revenue may fall short again.

Other ambitious proposals are likely to die in a drastically shortened remainder of the session, almost everyone agrees. When asked what else is essential to pass, Ralston answered “Frankly in my mind, not a lot.”