Mike Klein Online

Georgia Supreme Court Apparently Needs Donated Pens and Pencils

Mike Klein

Agency executives continued their march to the State Capitol on Wednesday for Senate – House budget hearings. They discussed shrinking their staffs, lacking resources to replace aging state patrol vehicles, closing adult corrections facilities, managing juvenile justice reform and much more.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein brought it down to pens and pencils.

“We have given up a floor of office space, returned a much needed copy machine and had to rely on law students interning for academic credit to fill our various gaps in staffing the clerk’s office,” Hunstein said.  “We also take every precaution possible to minimize waste from recycling old paper to recycling bindings that come in on pleadings and to soliciting pen and pencil donations.”

Pen and pencil donations?  Really?  That puts an entirely new light onto state agency budgets.

Wednesday morning’s session produced its lightest moment when Georgia State Patrol / Public Safety Commissioner Colonel Bill Hitchens was asked about the impact of no-texting while driving legislation. “I notice a lot of people got both hands in their lap a lot more than they used to,” Hitchens deadpanned.

Wednesday’s second day testimony before the Joint Appropriations Committee was mostly spot-on serious from agency executives who recognize the current landscape. “We understand what we are all facing,” new Juvenile Justice Commissioner Amy Howell told the committee.

Governor Nathan Deal embraced corrections reform in his Inaugural Address. Wednesday morning legislators heard Department of Corrections commissioner Brian Owens announce that Metro State Prison in DeKalb County and six adult pre-release centers will close over the next year. Howell said Juvenile Justice has shut down hundreds of beds and canceled service provider contracts throughout the state.

Brian Owens at Corrections and Amy Howell at Juvenile Justice are fighting evil twins: Adult and juvenile populations that increase while resources and budgets decrease.

Amy Howell

“On any given day we serve 20,000 youth in the community and 2,000 youth in secure beds,” Howell said. Juvenile Justice currently operates six youth development centers with 674 beds and 22 youth detention centers with 1,287 beds. It provides resources to 92 courts and it runs a fully accredited school that provides basic and special education and vocational training.

Not quite two years ago, in May 2009, the federal government agreed to end its supervision of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The Georgia program operates today within the guidelines of a memorandum the administration of Governor Sonny Perdue signed with the federal government.

Howell told legislators that juvenile justice state funding has been reduced by $76.5 million since fiscal 2009, although some of that gap was plugged with $28 million in stimulus funds.  Four hundred youth detention beds were eliminated.  Two youth facilities closed.  Hundreds of staff lost their jobs. Governor Deal’s fiscal 2012 proposed budget would trim $15.8 million more from the $302 million current appropriation.

“With fewer resources available, the manner and environment in which DJJ serves youth has been altered,” Howell said. “In order to balance the interest of public safety and constitutionally secure facilities, DJJ must ensure that we are serving the right youth in the right place.”

Howell said new budget reductions will mean closing two more youth detention centers with 60 total beds. One-third of the $15.8 million will be saved with 112 personnel cuts. Paid overtime, eleven education positions and eleven administrative positions will be gone.  Four contracts with community service providers were canceled in advance of the new budget.

Howell came prepared to propose and advocate for several short-term strategies, among them:  New risk assessment tools to assist judges before juvenile sentencing, moving more youths from state facilities to community resources, and changing guidelines to provide flexibility for shorter or longer sentences.   Longer term, Howell asked legislators to consider authorizing more beds at existing facilities when funds are available.

“Despite difficult times and difficult decisions, this is a manageable budget,” Howell said.

Brian Owens

Juvenile detention and rehabilitation challenges are mirrored in the adult system which has 53,000 inmates, up from 46,000 in 2002. Three thousand inmates are being held in local custody until state beds are available. Another 154,000 are on probation. About 21,000 inmates enter the corrections system each year. The cost to maintain that system is slightly less than $1.1 billion per year.

“Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, we were in a lock them up and throw away the key mode,” Corrections Commissioner Owens told the committee. “Many of us remember that. It’s not just Georgia, the whole United States,” he said, recalling a movement toward three strikes, you’re out and stiffer mandatory sentences.

“I think the public is starting to get the fact that if we hold offenders accountable on the street, we provide them with addiction services, we provide them with mental health treatment, we drug test them every other day and hold them accountable, we make them pay restitution to victims, that’s what the public really wants.”

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 19, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deal Eliminates Jobs, Cuts Budgets, Offers Harsh Words for Obamacare

Mike Klein

During his inaugural address this past Monday Georgia Governor Nathan Deal pledged, “We must justify every cent that government extracts from our society.”  On Wednesday afternoon the governor was back before the General Assembly with a few more eye-popping details.

Deal used his first State of the State address to announce 14,000 mostly vacant state government positions will be eliminated and state employment will be frozen at current levels.  In addition, the governor’s first budget reveals that many programs will be curtailed and some will be entirely gone.

“Many politicians have long talked about reducing the size of government,” Deal said. “My friends, we are doing it.” The governor told agencies to reduce current spending by 4% and to expect 7% average budget cuts in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Governor Deal proposed no new taxes or increases to existing taxes.  The former nine-term congressman did not mention proposals made last week by the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness.

The 4% current year budget reduction should be easy to achieve because the state has withheld funds from monthly payments made to agencies since last summer. Deal said 7% reductions next year would not be “uniform across agencies, but are designed to give priority funding to core responsibilities.” Some will be reduced more, such as 12.3% at Georgia Public Broadcasting, and some will receive budget increases.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal

Deal presented the General Assembly with an $18.162 billion fiscal 2012 budget proposal that is 3.75% and $273 million more than fiscal 2011. The governor said teacher furloughs should end and HOPE scholarship grants cannot exceed funding available from the Georgia lottery. “We must act now to maintain the Georgia jewel known as HOPE,” Deal said.

Education would be 54% of state expenditures. “My budget will end teacher furloughs and keep students in school for a full year,” Deal said. “I view education as our number one economic development tool and there is no more forward – looking or strategic place to invest.”

The state Department of Education would be almost unchanged at $6.994 billion but other state education spending would decline $498 million. The largest cuts are $275 million at the Student Finance Commission because of anticipated lower lottery fund payments and $118 million at the Board of Regents which would have a $1.723 billion budget.

Reduced lottery dollars would trim Bright from the Start by $19.7 million. The Technical College System would be reduced by $18.9 million to $300 million. TCS has been under pressure during the recession because enrollments are going up and dollars are going down.

Health care spending would increase $747 million to $4 billion, a number that will continue to grow due to federal mandates that will eventually add 650,000 Georgians to the Medicaid program. “This mandated expansion of service will cost Georgia Medicaid an additional $2.5 billion in state funds alone over the next ten years,” Deal said. Health care costs are 22.5% of state expenditures.

The governor’s harshest words were directed toward Washington. “The (President Barack) Obama administration has placed onerous maintenance of effort requirements as well, which have severely tied our hands with respect to managing our state Medicaid program,” Deal said. He predicted that without more flexibility, “we expect to see patient access to care severely limited.”

The Department of Community Health would receive $642 million more to $2.715 billion, Behavior Health and Developmental Disabilities would receive $111 million more to $876 million, and Human Services would remain nearly unchanged at $469.8 million.

Corrections reform was a major theme of Deal’s inaugural address and that emphasis carried forward into his proposed budget. The state Department of Corrections would receive $64.6 million more to $1.036 billion. Juvenile justice would receive $13.2 million more to $279 million and Public Safety would receive $6.2 million more to $107 million.

Additional corrections dollars would fund many ideas. Deal favors expansion of day reporting centers along with the creation of new drug, DUI and mental health courts, along with new probation and treatment options. Some public safety programs would absorb cuts, but overall total public safety spending would increase $82.8 million to $1.542 billion.

State of Georgia Seal

The Department of Economic Development budget would increase 43%. It would receive $12.5 million more to $41 million. Deal would fund part of that increase with $9.288 million in tobacco settlement funds; the department received no tobacco settlement funds last year.

Statewide courts would be spared budget reductions. The Supreme Court budget would increase slightly to $8.055 million. There would be no reductions to the Superior Courts, the Court of Appeals and the Juvenile Courts. Prosecuting attorneys would receive $1.8 million more to $57.5 million.

A lengthy list of possible losers includes nothing for the sports, music and aviation halls of fame which have been budget drains for years. There would be no state funds for the Civil War Commission, the State Medical Education Board, the Council for the Arts and the State Properties Commission.

The biggest piece of a proposed bond package is $231 million for K-12 construction, equipment and school buses. Another $15 million would fund STEM charter schools that specialize in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Deal proposed bond packages to fund reservoirs, deepen the Savannah harbor, make repairs to universities and upgrade technical colleges.

“My proposed bond package is less than $563 million which is approximately 50% less than bond packages in recent years,” Deal said. “I urge you to join me in keeping our borrowing at a lower level than the past. I believe that is the wise course of action.”

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governor Deal Pledges to Save HOPE, Reform Corrections, Limit Spending

Mike Klein

Moments after Nathan Deal became the 82nd Governor of Georgia on Monday afternoon he predicted a more limited government that perhaps chooses different missions by vowing, “We must justify every cent that government extracts from our society.”

Deal’s inaugural address was predictably short on program specifics.  Those begin to come this week when the governor delivers his State of the State address and releases his first proposed budget, both on Wednesday.  His address focused on statewide unemployment, corrections system reform, education, the HOPE scholarship, transportation, water and health care.

“The lingering pain of this great recession in which we are still engulfed has underscored the urgency of re-examining the role of government in our lives,” said Deal, who served nine terms in Congress.  “The evolution of society has infringed on much of the elbow room that our ancestors enjoyed, and government has been asked to regulate our actions as we bump into each other in our frantic search for success.

“In times of economic prosperity we often ignore the costs and inconvenience of governmental paternalism.  But in times such as these with more than one of every ten of our employable citizens out of work we must justify every cent that government extracts from our economy.”

Deal said one-in-13 Georgians is under correctional control, meaning in custody, on probation or on parole, and he said it costs $3 million per day to operate the Department of Corrections.  “Yet every day criminals continue to inflict violence on our citizens and an alarming number of the perpetrators are juveniles,” the governor said.

“College students should be concerned about their grades, not whether they are going to be mugged on their way home from class.  Visitors to our cities should be treated as welcome guests, and protected.  Families should not live in fear of gang violence or drive-by shootings. But most of all, our dedicated law enforcement officers must not be target for criminals.  Anyone who harms one of them harms us all.”

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal

The former state legislator from Gainesville promised violent and repeat offenders that, “We will make you pay for your crimes.  For other offenders who want to change their lives, we will provide the opportunity to do so with day reporting centers, drug, DUI and mental health courts, and expanded probation and treatment options.

“As a state we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions,” Deal said.  “It is draining our state treasury and it is depleting our work force.”

Deal praised his predecessors and “dedicated teachers and educators” but he noted Georgia K-12 public education “has failed to make the progress that we need.  This failure is a stain on our efforts to recruit businesses to our state and is a contributing factor to the frightening crime statistics that I previously mentioned.  High dropout rates and low graduation percentages are incompatible with my vision for the future of the state of Georgia.”

Deal sought to assure families who wonder about the long-term future of the financially challenged HOPE scholarship program.  “”I was not elected to make easy decisions but difficult ones,” Deal said.  “In this legislative session we will save HOPE for future generations.”

Deal emphasized the Savannah and Brunswick ports are Georgia’s link to an ever expanding international trade community.  “We will do our part to deepen the Savannah port in order to accommodate the larger vessels that will soon pass through the Panama Canal, but we must do more.  Our rail capacity and cargo routes must be improved and expanded.  We must not miss this opportunity to provide jobs for Georgians.”

The governor described Atlanta metro highway congestion as “a deterrent to job growth in the region.  If we do not solve this problem soon we will lose the businesses who want to expand or locate in our state.”

Deal also inherits the Tri-State Water War.  A federal court judge ruled Alabama, Florida and Georgia must reach agreement before July 2012 or Congress will impose a solution.  All three states have new Republican governors, but that does not ensure agreement.  All three states had Republican governors during Sonny Perdue’s eight years as Georgia governor.

Deal vowed the state will continue to negotiate but will also develop regional reservoirs.  “We are blessed with abundant water resources and we must use them wisely.”

The new governor was blunt in his assessment of federal health care policy, widely known as Obamacare.   “As governor I will resist the efforts of the federal government to mandate its solutions on our people, our businesses and our state government.”

The new governor assumed office three days after a special council issued the state’s most dramatic tax reform proposals in eighty years.  Legislative approval would reduce personal and corporate income tax rates, and make significant changes to sales taxes on products and services, including collection of sales tax on groceries.  He did not mention the tax proposals.

State of Georgia Seal

Fiscal issues will dominate every General Assembly conversation this session and dictate which priorities prevail.  The next state budget faces an estimated $2 billion shortfall.  Georgia will lose $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds.  It must also repay $425 million to the federal government because the state has been borrowing federal dollars to write unemployment checks.

Deal inherits an economy that is taking tentative steps to rebound from recession.   Georgia’s 10.1% unemployment rate is still several percentage points higher than the national average.  State government revenue that plunged over two fiscal years has begun to recover with seven consecutive monthly year-to-year increases, but improvement will not balance the budget.

Deal returned to his leaner, more focused model of government in concluding remarks.  “State government should not be expected to provide for us what we can provide for ourselves,” he said. “Let us refocus state government on its core responsibilities and relieve our taxpayers of unnecessary programs.  Let us be frugal and wise.  Let us restore the confidence of our citizens in a government that is limited and efficient.”

The inaugural ceremony was held at the House chamber at the State Capitol.  Overnight snow and ice that paralyzed Georgia caused cancellation of the planned outside ceremony, a morning church service and the Philips Arena evening gala in downtown Atlanta.

Deal was joined by his wife Sandra.  Their daughter Katie sang “Georgia On My Mind.”  Their son, Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, administered the 47-word oath of office.  Dignitaries in the state House chamber included U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, Congressman Phil Gingrey and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment