Powell: General Assembly must tackle budget shortfall first
The focus of the General Assembly when it reconvenes will be balancing what could be the biggest budget cut the state’s ever seen, leaving the future of potential local legislation in limbo, local representatives say.
State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, told The Hartwell Sun this week that the General Assembly could reconvene on June 11, but no date has been confirmed. Legislators could see one of the biggest budget cuts in the state’s history, he said. The legislative session has been suspended since March 13.
“We know that we’re looking at a major downturn in the state’s economy in revenue,” Powell said. “There’s been no business as usual.”
Since sporting events have been canceled, entertainment venues have been closed, dine-in restaurants were suspended and many other pandemic-prompted business closures resulted in lost state sales tax revenue, Powell said legislators will have their hands full trying to balance the budget before the session ends.
“We’re looking at probably close to a $2 billion shortfall just from now through June 30,” Powell estimated.
Those revenue shortfalls could result in legislators adopting the “biggest budget cut the state’s ever had to see,” Powell said. He estimates there could be as much as a 25 percent cut from the state’s fiscal year 2021 budget.
“That’s something that is just absolutely unheard of,” Powell said. “But we’re going to have to do what we’re going to do.”
Pay raises for teachers and state employees initially proposed for the budget could be postponed, Powell said. Major furloughs across the state could be coming too. Powell said he expects money to be cut from several state-funded agencies and programs as well.
“There’s a lot of things that have been added for years that did have good purposes for the biggest part, but now would be a time that we set priorities,” Powell said.
Powell wouldn’t speculate as to which agencies or programs could be cut, but he did say there could be cuts in education, considering about 55 percent of the state’s budget is dedicated to education.
“In the midst of this epidemic, I think a lot of the school systems have figured out a new way of teaching,” Powell said. “It’s just going to be a matter of tightening up the belt quite frankly.”
Cuts in the state’s budget will trickle down to the local governments who will be affected by it, Powell said. Local governments will need to figure out where they will be making cuts, he said, because he doesn’t think tax increases are the right move.
“During these unprecedented times, I don’t think it would be wise to be looking at tax increases,” Powell said. “Unemployment is at the highest levels it’s been, I guess in our lifetime.”
Local legislation Powell was planning to introduce, including a proposed increase in the homestead exemption on property taxes for seniors to be put on the November ballot, could be put on hold. Powell said he never heard from the Hart County Board of Education about the exemption increase, and while the board doesn’t have a say in whether the local legislation is introduced, Powell said he likes to have the local governments’ input.
“I’m going to open this back up to the counties that I represent to see what their wishes are,” Powell said about the proposed homestead exemption increase. “They might want to put it on hold for the year to see what comes out of all of this epidemic.”
After a one-day special session on March 16, Democratic caucus leaders said they only wanted to deal with the budget when the General Assembly returns, Powell said.
“I don’t know if that’s going to stick or not,” Powell said. “Personally, I think that the legislature, we need to finish what we’re supposed to do. And all the work, and all the other bills that had gone into effect they need to be heard, and if they have merit they need to be passed.”
Several other bills Powell introduced passed the House and are currently in the Senate for their consideration. One of the bills would expand the scope of practice for advanced practical nurses under the doctor’s protocol.
“That’s needed now more than ever,” Powell said.
Another piece of legislation Powell, who is the House Regulated Industries Committee Chairman, worked on alongside the committee would put the future of Georgia gambling in the hands of the voters. House Resolution 378 proposes a constitutional amendment and, if passed, would ask Georgia voters if they want to legalize betting, bingo games, raffles and gambling. The resolution is still in the House. Powell said he previously suggested the money collected directly from gaming, which they estimated to be about $1 billion of gross gaming tax, needs to go to health care every year.
“That might look pretty attractive right now,” Powell said about providing more funding for health care through legalized gaming taxes. “If the people of Georgia approved it, it would certainly be an economic stimulus for building and trades.”