ATLANTA — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has a sober message for anyone hoping their policy priorities will find funding in the upcoming legislative session: "You might need to come back next year."
The Blue Ridge Republican laid out his expectations for the session on Thursday, returning most often to the theme of austerity.
State revenues fell dramatically in 2019, falling by a combined $50 million in October and November alone. Gov. Brian Kemp has ordered state agencies to reduce spending four percent this fiscal year, which ends in June, and then six percent for the next fiscal year, starting in July.
Ralston said he does not relish the task ahead, but that the legislature must remain responsible.
"I know the governor is being very cautious with looking at the economy, which is kind of why we're here, because I think it has to be repeated and stressed that over the past 10 or so years we've been very, very conservative in how we manage the state's budget," the speaker said.
He added, though, that cuts won't come easy.
"I do rankle a little bit when I hear people talk about wasteful spending because I'm still trying to find it, and I have been for 10 years now," he said. "I told my caucus Tuesday, we always have to keep in mind that the budget is more than about numbers and percentages, because those are dollars that touch peoples lives. Those fund programs which are important to people."
Anyone expecting a quick and easy budget process, he said, will be in for a "real surprise."
The issues Ralston's chamber will address range from completing a state income tax cut that the legislature began phasing in last session, to how, or even whether, to fund the governor's proposal for a teacher pay raise and Medicaid reform.
Ralston indicated he would prefer to complete the tax cut - which would bring the state income tax down to 5.5 percent after it was dropped from 6 percent to 5.75 percent last session - over spending initiatives, such as the teacher raise.
Austerity could also table a proposal to provide more in Medicaid benefits to new mothers as Georgia grapples with a maternal mortality rate that is, by some estimates, the worst in the country.
"Obviously, the budget kinda constrains what we can do in that regard. For example the maternal mortality committee, I think they're gonna recommend some coverage for mothers for some period of time, as a way to address what is a critical issue here in the state, and one we can't ignore any longer," Ralston said. "The question becomes, is this the year we can do that? And I think that remains to be seen, because as we said earlier, I mean we simply can't do everything."
One possible way to make up the gap in revenues - legalizing gambling - will likely take center stage. Ralston did not signal his position on the matter, but said he would like to see the long-debated measure finally settled.
"We've talked about this issue here for years, so one of these days we're gonna have to say we're gonna quit talking, and we're gonna vote on it, however it comes out is how it comes out," he said. "At some point, I think it is appropriate to let the people of Georgia have the final word."
Ralston said he believes it will be an "interesting session."
"At the end of the day, we have to balance our budget as a state. We've done that all of these years and you know you have to be very, very careful," the speaker added. "This is going to be a very interesting session, because we have members in both chambers - I know we do in the House - and they give speeches about cutting the budget, well they're gonna get their chance this session, they're gonna get their chance. And I think they're gonna find out that it's a little easier said than done."
"Because one guy's waste is another gal's vital expenditure," Ralston added. "And I think people are gonna have a wake-up call on that this session."