Georgia governor tells agencies to hold line on spending

“As we continue to see increasing economic activity, strong consumer demand and continued unemployment declines, we expect our economy to see solid growth through the current fiscal year and into fiscal year 2023 (which starts July 1),” he wrote.

But even after dishing out that good news, he told the agencies not to seek additional funding.

The governor will use the agencies’ plans to build the budget proposal he will present to the General Assembly in January.

Of course, others will have input on the budget, especially as the state heads into an election year, and Kemp has his own priorities.

When he first ran for governor in 2018, Kemp promised teachers a $5,000 pay raise.

He got them $3,000 during his first legislative session after being elected. His plan to get them the remaining $2,000 was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and short recession that followed. So delivering on the promise in 2022 — at a cost to the state of more than $350 million a year in revenue — could be of utmost importance to the governor.

Republicans in the Legislature will likely seek tax cuts to boost their chances at the polls.

They’re also expected to call for more spending on law enforcement, since the party has seized on rising crime in metro Atlanta as a major issue.

Democrats will come to the General Assembly in January with their own wishes for how to use the money, including a likely push to expand Medicaid.

Education will also be a top priority for Democrats, who point out that state budget cuts approved in June 2020 — during the heart of the pandemic — remain. The General Assembly backfilled about 60% of those school cuts earlier this year.

More is needed, said Georgia Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain.

“While the governor has partially restored pre-pandemic budget levels, Georgia still falls short in educational investment,” Butler said. “The jobs of tomorrow are built on the education opportunities of today.”

Budget writers, however, say schools should be in good financial shape because they have received billions of dollars in federal aid during the pandemic.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s two big health care initiatives could be headed to court after another run-in with the Biden administration.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has given Georgia until Aug. 29 to answer questions about a plan to block state residents’ access to the federal health insurance shopping website, healthcare.gov.

Otherwise, the CMS wrote in a letter to Kemp’s health aides, the federal government could reevaluate the proposal without the state’s input. If the feds find the proposal no longer meets the guidelines to qualify for the waiver it received during the Trump administration, they could “take appropriate action.”

The CMS is questioning Georgia’s assertion that breaking away from healthcare.gov will increase competition by forcing shoppers off the website and into business with private insurance agents. The state says that would improve the market, attracting more people to sign up.

Critics of that plan say the proposal wouldn’t add any new choices for shoppers while taking away what they say is the most popular option, the website. They add that private insurance agents have a record of providing worse outcomes for shoppers because of the fees they get from companies for selling particular plans.

Georgia tried to justify a departure from healthcare.gov by asserting that demand had plummeted for plans offered under the Affordable Care Act. But critics say the state cherry-picked its data, for example, limiting it to the initial years when the Georgia market had not found its footing. The market later stabilized, and demand was increasing at the time the Trump administration approved the waiver, partly as a result of the pandemic.

Kemp’s press secretary, Mallory Blount, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the state had received the CMS letter and it was “currently under review.”

The letter came after the Biden administration moved to pause a waiver the state also received from the Trump administration to launch a limited expansion of Medicaid, and the state said it would delay implementation until the end of the year.

That proposal called for expanding coverage under Medicaid to those who meet certain work requirements or other eligibility standards.

It was expected to eventually cover about 50,000 of some 400,000 uninsured low-income adults in the state.

Georgia is one of 12 states that chose not to fully expand Medicaid to cover all their low-income adults under the ACA, with the federal government paying at least 90% of the cost of the expansion.

Republicans who control the state government have resisted expansion because they say Congress could end those payments at any time, forcing the state to cover the full cost itself.

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The use of benefits in Georgia from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, ballooned at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and still remains close to that level. File photo.

The number of Georgians receiving welfare benefits has continued to decline, a trend that began decades ago.

Food stamps are a different story.

Use of that program — known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — rose by about 40% in the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic and has remained at nearly that level ever since.

That’s even though the state’s economy appears to be doing well. Georgia’s unemployment rate dropped to a recent low of 4% in June after hitting a high point of 12.5% in April 2020. And in metro Atlanta, home to about two-thirds of the state’s economy, retail sales last month were 11.9% higher than the same month two years earlier, according to the Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures in-store and online retail sales.

The Division of Family and Children Services, which manages the program in Georgia, reports that about 876,000 households received almost $465 million in SNAP benefits in July 2020.

By this past March, the most recent month for food stamp figures made available by DFCS, about 848,000 households were receiving about $387 million in benefits.

Enrollment dipped to about 819,000 households in December, but officials say that was caused by a lag in recipients reapplying for the annual benefit. Food stamp use has steadily increased since then.

Monthly payouts are also up by nearly $100 per household since the beginning of the pandemic after the state increased the benefits.

Before the pandemic, food stamp use was on the decline in the state. About 600,000 fewer people received food stamps in 2019 than in 2013.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,200 fewer Georgia households received benefits in the past year through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly known as welfare.

In July 2020, welfare payments were granted to 8,533 Georgia households, according to DFCS data provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By this past June, that was down to 7,358.

Those numbers have fallen steadily over time. In 2006, the earliest year for which DFCS could provide data, 33,302 households received welfare benefits. That’s a decrease of nearly 78%.

The criteria to qualify for TANF are more strict than for food stamps, DFCS officials say.

For example, to be eligible for welfare in Georgia, a family of three must have a gross income below $784 a month. That same family could have a monthly gross income of up to $2,311 and still qualify for SNAP benefits.

Fulton County, already facing the prospect of a performance review of how it conducts elections, found through an internal audit that its elections department has plenty of problems, including a lack of standard operating procedures. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
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Fulton County, already facing the prospect of a performance review of how it conducts elections, found through an internal audit that its elections department has plenty of problems, including a lack of standard operating procedures. (ALYSSA POINTER / [email protected])

Credit: [email protected]

Credit: [email protected]

Georgia Republicans, citing “repeated and systemic election process failures,” have put in motion a process that could lead to a state takeover of Fulton County’s elections.

But an internal audit has also found plenty of problems with the county’s elections department, including a lack of standard operating procedures; inconsistent procurement procedures; untimely payment of invoices; improper payment of services; inadequate safeguarding of assets; and inadequate departmental accountability and oversight of financial transactions.

The audit, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, doesn’t address the actual management of polling locations or the counting of votes, but it provides more ammunition to supporters of a state takeover of Fulton’s elections under Georgia’s new election law, Senate Bill 202.

The unpublished audit is dated Aug. 2, only days after two dozen Republican state senators sent a letter seeking a performance review of the county’s elections chief, Richard Barron.

Barron has faced heavy pressure over his department’s performance during last year’s elections. The Fulton election board fired him in February, but then the County Commission voted to retain him by a narrow majority.

Barron wrote in a response that a COVID-19 outbreak caused him to lose half of his staff within a week of the November election.

He said all the tumult in 2020 “created various situations where tasks were being handled and processed from parties other than our own internal staff. This created irregularities within our scope and ability to manage or oversee certain processes and procedures.”

AJC FILE
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Three unions representing more than 3,000 workers in metro Atlanta have written letters to Georgia Republicans in Congress urging them to support the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

The letters — written by the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, Amalgamated Transit Union Chapter 732 and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists — stress the need for infrastructure investments in the state.

A White House fact sheet shows that benefits to Georgia include:

  • $8.9 billion to repair and rebuild highways.
  • $1.4 billion to improve public transportation.
  • $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs.
  • $135 million to expand the electric vehicle charging network.
  • At least $100 million to build or improve broadband networks across the state.

The fact sheet also says 187,000 Georgians would become eligible for a benefit making internet access more affordable for low-income families.

Republicans and some economists have expressed concerns that the massive increase in federal spending for the infrastructure package and other components of Biden’s economic agenda could spark rising prices that could hurt the economy.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, during a visit to Atlanta this past week to promote the infrastructure package, said there are “good-faith discussions” to be had about how much spending is too much.

But she added: “My largest concern is not, what are the risks if we made these big investments. It’s what is the cost if we don’t?”

“We have a chance now to repair the broken foundations of our economy,” Yellen said, “and, on top of it, to build something stronger and fairer than what came before.”

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black used a campaign ad to take what until now has been a rare step in the race for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate. He went after University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker, who is still weighing whether to run in the same race.
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Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black used a campaign ad to take what until now has been a rare step in the race for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate. He went after University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker, who is still weighing whether to run in the same race.

If you’re going to run, run already.

You wouldn’t think it would be necessary to tell that to a Heisman Trophy winner, but it seems to be the message of an ad Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black recently put out taking aim at University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker.

Black, currently the most prominent Republican in the state’s U.S. Senate race, would lose that title if Walker entered the contest.

Former President Donald Trump has encouraged Walker to run, and the former running back, who now lives in Texas, recently posted a video on his social media that showed him in front of a car with a suspended Georgia license plate and boasting that he’s getting ready to “run with the big dogs.”

In his ad, Black says he’s “been ready.”

“And, Herschel, I already run with the big dogs,” Black says, although maybe he meant Dawgs. “For fun, my ride’s a tractor. And I’ve had Georgia plates all my life.”

Other “big dogs,” such as U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, have stayed on the sidelines while they wait to see whether Walker enters the race. Carter has said a run against Walker would be “political suicide.”

So far, the only other GOP candidates challenging Black are former SEAL Latham Saddler, the race’s leading fundraiser, and another military vet, construction executive Kelvin King.

Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University professor and expert on the Holocaust, was appointed by President Joe Biden to serve as a special envoy in the U.S. State Department with a mission to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

Her new role comes with a rank equal to that of an ambassador, meaning she will need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

— Republican Patrick Witt, who worked in the federal Office of Personnel Management during the Trump administration, has joined the field of candidates running in the 10th Congressional District. Other Republicans running in that race are state Rep. Timothy Barr; former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun; Mike Collins, who narrowly lost to Hice in 2014; David Curry, a former Georgia revenue commissioner; and wealthy demolition man Matt Richards.

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