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Rural Georgia Braces for Kemp’s Budget

Rural Georgia supported Gov. Brian Kemp overwhelmingly in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Now they are asking serious questions about how his proposed budget will negatively impact the area.  Lawmakers have made it a priority to pour millions of dollars into efforts to help rural Georgia.  Some are now wondering what the results of their work will be after much of what they championed was slated by Kemp and agency heads to be trimmed back.

Changing the long pattern of struggling small-town Georgia economies has been a top priority among members of the General Assembly.  House Speaker David Ralston’s strong support has encouraged lawmakers to put taxpayer money behind their ideas.  One example is creating a Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation in Tifton.  Under Kemp’s proposal the center would take a $100,000 budget cut next year.

Several questions continue to resonate concerning how proposed budget cuts are going to affect rural Georgia:

• How will they affect meat inspections and marketing of farm products at a time when Hurricane Michael and trade wars have hurt the state’s top industry, agriculture?
• How will they affect programs to get more doctors to small-town Georgia?
• How will they affect health departments in remote counties with no doctors?
• How will they affect programs to boost the economy of rural Georgia?

“Rural Georgia is going to feel the pain of this,” said state Rep. James Beverly (D-Macon), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.  “Rural Georgia is going to get killed.”

Small-town lawmakers who dominate the budget committees in the General Assembly expressed particular concern about Kemp’s proposed reduction to several health care initiatives including a loan forgiveness program for rural health care professionals and funding for public health departments.

Beverly, the House minority caucus chairman, said the series of cuts to rural programs shows small-town Georgians have been misled.  “It is our job to let folks know that, here is a governor who said one thing, who you voted for, but who is not helping you,” Beverly said. “He’s hurting you.”

According to Kemp’s office, the governor is, “committed to keeping rural Georgia strong by using innovative ways to spur economic growth, improve educational opportunities and ensure bright futures for Georgia families.”  They stress, “The governor’s budget fully funds Quality Basic Education for Georgia students, includes a $2,000 educator pay raise for a combined $5,000, invests in critically important infrastructure initiatives and provides much-needed resources to improve health care access and quality across the Peach State.”

The governor’s budget plan would eliminate funding for a rural water association and a rural health innovation program and cut money for:  loan repayment awards for health care professionals working in rural Georgia; medical malpractice insurance assistance for doctors working in rural Georgia; a rural surgery initiative; doctor training programs that helped prepare more physicians to work in rural Georgia; and for several other medical programs.

Proposed cuts to the Georgia Department of Agriculture raised concerns about filling vacancies in the positions of food safety inspector and agriculture marketing positions which would lead to fewer meat inspections.  “Should our citizens be concerned about food safety?” asked Rep. Carolyn Hugley (D-Columbus), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “When you talk about food inspections and meat inspections are going to be fewer and farther between, what is our obligation to the public if we are going to do this?”

Farmers sounded the alarm concerning the agricultural experiment stations and the Cooperative Extension Service which are part of the University System of Georgia budget and would experience reductions of about $7.6 million next year under the governor’s budget plan. University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley promised to work with lawmakers to avoid or lessen the cuts to the two programs.

During a recent press conference outlining their 2020 legislative agenda, Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) members also expressed alarm about the governor’s budget.  Caucus Chair Rep. Karen Bennett (D-Stone Mountain) addressed the GLBC’s concerns regarding Governor Brian Kemp’s budgetary recommendation for the Amended Fiscal Year 2020 and Fiscal Year 2021 budgets.  She discussed potential divestments in the state’s criminal justice system, especially in services that support rehabilitation, training, alternative sentencing and legal representation.  Bennett discussed how the proposed budget cuts could also impact the following areas:  the state’s social mobility gap; workforce training; economic development; children/adolescent health, education and social services; health services; and statewide infrastructure.

“We must join colleagues across both parties to address these concerns and work to find solutions to balance our budget without jeopardizing these critical services,” said Bennett.

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