New Georgia budget proposals restore pandemic-driven cuts to schools

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday called for increasing funds to Georgia public schools by more than $1.2 billion to help offset cuts to education the General Assembly imposed last year.

The governor’s $26.3 billion mid-year budget – up from the $25.9 billion fiscal 2021 budget lawmakers adopted last June – would restore more than $647 million in “austerity” cuts to Georgia schools. Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget plan covering state spending starting July 1 would restore another $573 million.

Kemp’s budget recommendations would mean less heavy lifting for the legislature, which was forced to cut spending last year by $2.2 billion to offset several months of plunging state revenues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic’s toll on the economy.

Nearly $1 billion of those reductions were to Georgia schools, even as teachers and administrators struggled to cope with the impacts of COVID-19.

“The additional burdens of remote learning, social distancing, wearing a mask, adapting to the new normal honestly made education overwhelming,” Kemp said Thursday during his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the state House and Senate. “With those funds, schools will be able to prioritize our students’ safety [and] ensure quality education continues.”

Besides restoring the cuts to K-12 education, the two budgets would put back spending reductions to Georgia’s public colleges and universities as well as the state’s technical colleges. The governor also is proposing to fully fund enrollment growth at both public schools and on University System of Georgia campuses.

New spending initiatives include $30 million to establish a rural broadband infrastructure grant program, $20 million in seed money in the mid-year budget and $10 million in fiscal 2022 to match federal funds and private money to build broadband projects.

Kemp also is recommending $40 million in the fiscal 2022 budget to launch the Rural Innovation Fund, a pool of money to help finance innovative projects targeted to specific needs in specific parts of rural Georgia.

The annual bond package for building projects is highlighted by $90 million that would go toward the $210 million expansion of the Savannah Convention Center. The General Assembly put up $70 million in bond funding for the first phase of the project last year.

Another $6 million in bond financing would go toward expanding the Lake Lanier Conference Center in Hall County.

Transportation-related bonds include $100 million in what has become an annual allocation for new bridges across Georgia and $10 million for improvements to the state’s network of short-line railroads.

On the mental health front, the fiscal 2022 budget includes nearly $2 million to expand services to Georgians with intellectual and development disabilities.

And, in a sign of the times, $5 million would go toward building an 8-foot fence around the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta. The Capitol grounds have seen a stronger-than-usual police presence since last week’s riot in and around the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump.

K-12 public schools set for $1.7 billion in new COVID-19 aid in Georgia

Georgia public schools are set to receive about $1.7 billion in federal COVID-19 aid as part of a second round of relief spending Congress passed last month.

The new funding follows about $457 million Georgia K-12 schools were allocated last year in the initial wave of COVID-19 federal relief through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Local districts will receive relief funding based on what proportion of low-income students attend their schools, ranging from more than $139 million for DeKalb County schools to nearly $367,000 for Glascock County schools.

The state Board of Education approved distributing the COVID-19 aid at a meeting Thursday morning, shortly before Gov. Brian Kemp outlined his latest budget priorities for the General Assembly in the 2021 legislative session.

Kemp has called for restoring school budgets in the remainder of the current school year after districts had to cut $950 million due to economic pains from the COVID-19 pandemic, adding back $647 million this school year and $573 million next school year to fully fund enrollment growth and help prop up schools where enrollment dropped.

In his annual “State of the State” speech on Thursday, Kemp announced the state will give teachers and other school employees a one-time $1,000 pay supplement as they continue struggling with impacts from the virus.

“In a year when other states may face no other option but to slash education dollars, furlough teachers and cut back on essential student programs, Georgia is restoring funding to schools, backing our teachers and launching new initiatives to keep kids enrolled,” Kemp said.

Public schools in Georgia will not be required to share federal funds with private schools in the new relief package like they did in the initial CARES aid after a federal judge halted that distribution plan over the summer.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods said his office will look at whether those funding allocations could be changed to reflect school population sizes instead of just low-income student percentages after some board members voiced concerns about fair distribution.

Woods added “a good portion” of the new COVID-funding would go toward helping restore budget cuts made last year.

Many local schools are still grappling with how to hold classes amid the pandemic. Several districts are remaining online-only for students, including the large DeKalb County School District. Other districts have instituted limits on classes sizes or allowed students to opt in for in-person classes.

The state received more than $80 million in federal aid last summer to bolster internet connections for virtual learning, mental health services, support for independent colleges, online classes for technical colleges, a construction-training program and funds for early child-care assistance.

Election issues, COVID-19 pandemic top of mind for Georgia lawmakers

Gov. Brian Kemp (right) joined Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (center) and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (left) to condemn riots by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Rural broadband, pandemic recovery and election battles to come in Georgia’s legislative session highlighted the annual “Eggs and Issues” program held Wednesday by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston each promised to focus on boosting broadband internet access in rural parts of the state and shoring up Georgia’s economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Democratic legislative leaders pledged to fight likely upcoming moves by Republicans to change Georgia’s election laws governing voter ID requirements and mail-in voting qualifications.

The chamber’s traditional breakfast gala was virtual-only this year instead of the usual in-person gathering at the Georgia World Congress Center, marking the rising role of online communications as state lawmakers look to bolster tele-health options and virtual studies for schools.

“As 2020 fades in the rearview mirror, I believe we have the opportunity and the responsibility to make strategic decisions now that will positively impact our state for generations to come,” Kemp said.

The governor’s remarks came before he unveils his budget priorities on Thursday as Georgia businesses and state tax revenues continue rebounding from the pandemic. On top of avoiding budget cuts, Kemp said he plans to push “substantial investments” for rural broadband in his budget proposal.

Internet expansion and technology improvements are also on the agenda for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Georgia Senate. He pressed the need for building out tele-health platforms and shoring up Georgia’s freight and logistics industries, which have been hit hard by the pandemic.

“We want to continue to gain the momentum that we’ve gained in the last two sessions,” Duncan said.

Look for important annual tweaks to the current fiscal year budget to come early in the session in case the General Assembly has to suspend proceedings like it did last year due to the pandemic, said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

A handful of state lawmakers including Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, have already tested positive for COVID-19 just three days into the session, creating uncertainty over how the next roughly two months will go as the legislature tackles hundreds of bills.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen on the pandemic,” Ralston said. “We need to get an amended budget out there fairly soon at least to keep the state open through the end of June.”

The speaker also signaled he does not expect the session will tamper with Georgia’s lucrative film tax credit program, which some lawmakers have called for shrinking to help boost state coffers. Also unlikely this session are any major bills on health care and health insurance in Georgia, Ralston said.

“I’m not sure that during the middle of a pandemic is the best time to undertake substantial changes,” Ralston said.

Looming over Wednesday’s program were the likely political brawls ahead on efforts to change Georgia’s election laws after President-elect Joe Biden became the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992 and Democrats flipped both U.S. Senate seats.

Many Republican lawmakers have also targeted mail-in voting after huge numbers of absentee ballots were cast in the June 9 primaries, Nov. 3 general election and Jan. 5 runoffs.

While the state’s top Republicans largely skipped discussing election issues Wednesday, Democratic leaders in both legislative chambers said they’re gearing up for a fight to oppose any moves that could reduce ballot access in future elections.

State Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, who chairs the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said opposing crackdowns on mail-in voting “will definitely be a priority.” House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, called fraud and election issues a distraction from legislative efforts to help Georgians push through the pandemic.

“We’ll be ready for the fight,” Beverly said. “But it’s not something that we should be spending time on.”

Kemp is set to deliver the annual “State of the State” speech on Thursday outlining his budget and legislative priorities for the session, followed by a rebuttal from Democratic leaders.

COVID-19 vaccine rollout slow in Georgia as top state lawmaker tests positive

Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton) speaks from the Senate floor on Jan. 11, 2021, one day before announcing he tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Local providers are struggling to administer COVID-19 vaccines in Georgia as health clinics have been swamped with requests for doses since Gov. Brian Kemp expanded eligibility to those 65-years and older.

The deluge of vaccine seekers came as the General Assembly grappled with the highly infectious virus on Tuesday. A top lawmaker in the Georgia Senate announced he tested positive just two days into the 2021 legislative session in Atlanta.

Georgia is currently being shipped around 120,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines each week, with roughly one-third of that allotment being administered to nursing home residents and staff through a federal distribution program with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.

That leaves state officials with around 80,000 doses weekly to divvy up, an amount far fewer than the 1.3 million people 65 and older and the state’s roughly 536,000 health-care workers who are first in line to receive the vaccine, Kemp said at a news conference Tuesday.

“There are simply more Georgians that want the vaccine than can get it today,” Kemp said.

Less than one-third of the nearly 700,000 vaccine doses shipped to Georgia as of late Monday have been administered, according to state Department of Public Health data. Kemp said he aims to have all nursing home staff and residents vaccinated by the end of the month.

Providers began vaccinating Georgians ages 65 and older on Tuesday, unleashing a wave of requests from vaccine hopefuls that flooded local health departments with tens of thousands of calls for appointments. Kemp stressed vaccines are only available to older Georgians where supplies are sufficient.

“Please know that we are working tirelessly to get our limited supply of vaccines to those who need it and who it would do the most good,” Kemp said.

As Kemp dug into the vaccine rollout, lawmakers at the Georgia Capitol were jolted on Tuesday after state Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, tested positive for COVID-19. Dugan spoke several times from the Senate floor and mingled with other lawmakers while masked on Monday, the first day of the legislative session.

State lawmakers are required to be tested twice per week during the session, though early signs point to gaps in the rules. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, scolded House lawmakers on Tuesday after 74 of the chamber’s 180 members skirted mandatory testing the day before.

“If you don’t want to keep yourself safe, I’d like you to keep your neighbor safe and me safe and those around you safe,” Ralston said.

Georgia has logged more than 6,000 new positive COVID-19 cases daily over the past few days, continuing a spike in transmissions this winter that saw the state record more than 10,000 new cases in a single day last week, by far the largest amount since the pandemic took root last March.

Along with tight vaccine supplies and high transmission rates, state officials are also dealing with some local providers who have started stockpiling vaccines for their patients in anticipation future shipments may not be enough to cover the two doses needed for full vaccination.

Kemp and Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said state officials will start intervening to re-distribute vaccines from providers that are stockpiling them.

“If it takes me firing up my pickup truck and doing it myself, so be it,” Kemp said.

Toomey added officials are looking to overhaul how eligible Georgians schedule vaccine appointments as some counties have seen website glitches in recent days. Providers have also been lax in reporting vaccine data, complicating efforts to secure more shipments with the federal government poised to start shipping vaccines to states based on how quickly they’re being administered.

Toomey also said officials are pushing to open large-scale regional vaccination sites to both boost the speed of dose administration and prepare for giving vaccines to far more people once the general public becomes eligible in the coming months.

“The good news is that there’s a tremendous demand for the vaccine,” said Toomey, noting many health-care workers in rural parts of Georgia have declined to receive the vaccine. “We have a lot of providers but just not sufficient vaccine to give them at this time.”

About 773,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon, according to state data. The virus had killed 10,444 Georgians.

University System of Georgia Chancellor Wrigley to retire

University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley

ATLANTA – University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley Tuesday announced plans to retire on July 1 after 36 years in public service.

Wrigley has been serving in the university system’s top spot since 2017. Before that, he spent decades in the university system and elsewhere in state government.

“It has been a great privilege and honor to serve the citizens of Georgia,” Wrigley said in a statement. “During a career in education policy and administration, I have worked with many incredible people and made countless cherished friendships.

“I am grateful to my family and members of the Board of Regents for their support and guidance, and I especially appreciate the support and leadership of governors [Brian] Kemp and [Nathan] Deal during my time as chancellor.”

“For several decades, Chancellor Wrigley has devoted his career to serving his fellow Georgians,” Kemp added. “Since assuming his role as chancellor of the University System of Georgia, he has helped our higher education system achieve new heights.”

Wrigley has emphasized shoring up graduation rates during his four years running the university system.

Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities experienced an almost 10 percentage point increase in four-year graduation rates during his tenure, while the system saw among the largest increases in the nation over the last five years for six-year college completion rates, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Despite the pandemic, the system awarded 70,879 degrees this past fiscal year, the most in its 89-year history. Enrollment during the just completed fall semester systemwide was a record 341,000 students.

The system also has held the line on tuition on Wrigley’s watch. He told members of the system’s Board of Regents Tuesday that tuition has risen an average of only 0.9% during the last five years, less than the rate of inflation. Three of those five years saw no tuition hikes.

Before taking the reins as chancellor, Wrigley served as the university system’s executive vice chancellor of administration and, before that, in leadership roles at the University of Georgia.

During the 1990s, prior to joining the university system, he served as chief of staff to then-Gov. Zell Miller.

The Board of Regents has yet to formulate a plan for hiring Wrigley’s successor.