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House committee puts back spending cuts in mid-year state budget

Budget writers in the Georgia House of Representatives Tuesday restored some of the spending cuts Gov. Brian Kemp has requested in his mid-year state budget to help offset sluggish tax revenues.

The $27.4 billion fiscal 2020 mid-year budget members of the House Appropriations Committee adopted puts back funding for food safety, mental health services, Georgia’s public defenders and the state’s accountability courts.

Since receiving Kemp’s budget proposals last month, lawmakers have expressed concerns that the depth of some of the cuts would hit state agencies that have yet to recover from the spending cuts they were forced to absorb during the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

Those fears were reinforced when state agency heads warned during budget hearings of the impacts the cuts would have on programs and services.

The list of worried department heads included Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, who asked lawmakers not to reduce his food safety workforce. On Tuesday, the appropriations panel added back five food safety inspectors who had been cut from the mid-year budget.

In the criminal justice arena, the House committee transferred $1.5 million from the Georgia Prosecuting Attorney’s Council to the state Public Defender Council to avoid job losses among Georgia’s public defenders.

The popular accountability courts then-Gov. Nathan Deal launched several years would see a $1.3 million cut restored.

Rep. Terry England, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said depriving the accountability courts of the funding they need would send more criminal defendants to prison rather than managing them through a less costly alternative.

“They would certainly wind up with a less cost-effective method of dealing with what they’ve done,” said England, R-Auburn.

The Department of Natural Resources, in charge of state parks and environmental compliance, had funds added back for maintenance and law enforcement following concerns its budget had not recovered yet from the recession. The DNR was hit particularly hard when the economic downturn sent tax collections plummeting in 2008.

“We’re trying to keep them still fully in play,” said Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, chairman of the House Appropriations General Government Subcommittee.

Lawmakers have been particularly worried about the potential impacts of cuts to mental health services. On Tuesday, the Appropriations Committee reduced proposed reductions to the number of residential treatment beds and added $2.8 million for behavioral “ health core” services.

“We’re able to make some improvements,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, chairman of the Appropriations Human Resources Subcommittee. “It’s a very, very good day for this part of the budget.”

The committee also added $44,111 to the $200,000 the governor recommended for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. The General Assembly created the commission last year to oversee the growth, production and sale of cannabis oil in Georgia for treatment of a variety of diseases, but it is off to a slow start.

The full House is expected to take up the mid-year budget on Wednesday.

Staff writer Beau Evans contributed to this report.