The General Assembly is back at the Gold Dome this week to finish our work on the 2021 budget. Unfortunately, I’m told that very few measures that are not budget-related will pass. The logistics of debating and voting in such large numbers (there are 180 representatives and 56 senators) while social-distancing will pose unique challenges that our Founding Fathers could never have dreamed of when they created our Constitutional Republic.
The facts and science seem to suggest that Gov. Kemp had it just about right when it came to closing and re-opening our state. Georgia is now seen as a leader in how to combat this virus, and his deploying of the National Guard to help clean nursing homes is being copied by many other states. Our COVID-19 numbers are still very manageable as we increase our testing, and none of our hospitals is overwhelmed. Gov. Kemp has since urged all Georgians to schedule a screening, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. But of course, the elderly and people with chronic conditions should still remain safely quarantined.
Which brings us to the very difficult budget. This voluntary effort to shut down our livelihoods has caused an economic fallout even worse than the Great Depression. A shocking third of all Georgians lost their jobs.
Thankfully, the unemployment numbers – particularly here in the Peach State – are getting much better. Thankfully, our state’s previous conservative fiscal policy has built a healthy rainy-day reserve balance of $2.7 billion. Thankfully, the numbers aren’t as bad as they were just a month ago. Thus, the governor has instructed every state agency to reduce their budget by 11 percent for fiscal year 2021, instead of the 14 percent he had previously announced. That is on top of the 4 percent we already took for fiscal year 2020.
Since 90 percent of the state budget is tied up in 11 large budget areas, that is where 90 percent of the cuts will have to come from. Education will probably lose about $1.2 billion, community health $400 million, our universities $290 million, transportation $225 million, corrections $136 million, student finance $112 million, human services $93 million, Early Care and Learning $51 million, and our technical colleges $42 million. Another $266 million will come from the remaining 38 agencies.
A non-budget measure I believe we need to complete is the Hate Crime Bill that the House passed last year and that is waiting for Senate consideration. I support HB 426, a bipartisan measure that would provide additional punishment for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on “race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.” Please, keep in mind, this legislation does not create special classes of people as it applies to any one being targeted – whatever side they are on – according to that list. The sponsor, Republican Rep. Chuck Efstration, is asking the Senate not to amend the bill as this would make it much harder to pass. “Now is the time for the Georgia Senate to do the right thing and pass the Georgia Hate Crimes Act without delay,” he says. Speaker David Ralston is fully backing the measure, saying he is, “more committed to a hate-crimes law than ever” following Floyd’s and Arbery’s unjustifiable deaths.
I have a few military bills that I hope will pass. I worked very hard on two teacher bills that both passed the House, but unfortunately, they will probably not make it further as they both asked for money that we simply do not have now.
Nearly every American agrees that the brutal killing of George Floyd was completely unacceptable, that racism must never be tolerated, and we need to enact meaningful reforms. But the looting and violence that followed are not healing the nation and are certainly against the stated wishes of the family of Floyd. Their words of positive change and reconciliation are the ones we should be listening to. Unfortunately, they are being drowned out by anarchists who mean this country harm.
Finally, I want to re-state my continued support for law enforcement. Like the military, they do a dangerous, very nearly impossible task of keeping us safe for very little reward. Every organization has bad elements, and bad police must be rooted out. But the vast majority of police act in a professional manner to defend peace and order. Rather than defunding the police, we should be giving them better training and more resources.