High priorities targeted for cuts to meet Georgia governor's order

James Salzer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When lawmakers learned that thousands of DNA samples taken from women who told police they had been raped had never been processed, they put extra money into the state budget to hire scientists and lab technicians to clear the backlog.

When then-Gov. Nathan Deal wanted to change Georgia's overcrowded criminal justice system, he poured millions into accountability courts in hopes of keeping relatively low-level offenders out of prison.When legislative leaders sought to combat the shortage of medical professionals in small-town Georgia, they funded financial incentive programs to persuade more doctors to practice in rural areas.

Each was a priority to lawmakers, and they would all be scaled back under budget cuts that state agencies proposed to meet Gov. Brian Kemp's call to reduce spending 4% this year and 6% in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

But for anyone at the Capitol who has been through recessions, it's not particularly surprising. The people who run state agencies have been offering up spending cuts to programs near and dear to lawmakers for decades whenever the call has come to reduce their budgets.

"I have seen it over and over," said George Hooks, a former longtime Senate budget chairman and amateur Statehouse historian. "What they do is the agencies will cut the very things they feel like legislators will put back into the budget."

Kemp's Office of Planning and Budget told state agencies they will begin seeing their monthly allotments cut on Oct. 1. That means state agencies will be receiving millions of dollars less to spend on areas ranging from prisons to criminal investigations, environmental regulation to assistance for farmers during the fall harvest.

The governor made the move to both prepare the state in case of an economic downturn and provide the money needed to meet his priorities, such as higher teacher pay.

House and Senate leaders will discuss the spending cuts during hearings on the budget later next week.

Kemp's office said the OPB will do a thorough analysis of the plans before Oct. 1, and that some of the proposals agencies made may not be implemented or included in the governor's midyear budget that he will present to the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.

But it's not hard to go through the more than 170 pages of proposals and see things bound to give state lawmakers heartburn.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation proposed cutting forensic scientists and lab techs — the very thing lawmakers funded to eliminate the backlog on the testing of rape kits. The backlog ended last year to much fanfare. But that and a proposal to cut grants to local domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centers by $1.3 million caught lawmakers and advocates by surprise.

"I am tremendously concerned," said Ann Burdges, who long ran the Gwinnett County Sexual Assault Center and Children's Advocacy Center. "That seems like a bad budgetary move to an investment that you now undercut."

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who worked with the chamber's Republican leadership to resolve the rape-kit backlog, said he was concerned the state is retreating from its work to solve the problem.

"Criminals who commit sexual assaults often do it repeatedly, so that is why there is urgency that kits be tested and that they be tested quickly," Holcomb said.

He said building the DNA database helps police investigating other crimes.

Accountability courts got a big push from Deal as part of his priority to "reform" the criminal justice system and send fewer low-level offenders to prison. Deal greatly expanded the courts to allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, receive treatment, get an education and find a job.

The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunken drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who've been charged largely with nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses.

Under agency proposals the courts would take a $950,000 hit this year and $1.5 million in fiscal 2021. Education programs for inmates would also be cut.

None of the proposed cuts are likely to draw as much ire from lawmakers as those involving rural Georgia. Legislators have made improving the lot of rural Georgians a priority the past few years, and it is a particularly important constituency for the majority Republican Party, which dominates nonmetro areas. Kemp won election as governor last year largely because he dominated rural Georgia, and most of the members of legislative leadership come from small towns outside metro Atlanta.

The proposals would cut millions of dollars from the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service. About one-quarter of the money allocated for programs providing incentives to doctors to work in rural Georgia would also be cut.

The plans would also reduce funding for trauma care — a high priority in areas far from big hospitals — by about $1.6 million.The University of Georgia, which heads the Cooperative Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station, has declined to answer questions about how it will deal with $9 million in budget cuts, saying in its proposal only that it will "reduce funds for personal services and operating expenses." School officials won't say whether staffers are being laid off to meet those cuts.

State Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, a farmer who regularly talks to his local Cooperative Extension Service agent, said their services are vital to rural Georgia.

"We have a lot of momentum right now for rural Georgia, and we don't want to hurt that," Watson said. "Those are very effective (programs), and there is a lot of good that comes from them and a lot of lives are impacted."

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