FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — When legislators return to the Gold Dome mid-June, they will have to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that addresses the shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Record high unemployment, sharp drops in consumer spending and entire industries forced to shut down overnight have created an unprecedented problem for the state’s finances.
To help the public make sense of the impending challenges, state representatives Angelika Kausche and Josh McLaurin hosted a virtual town hall May 28, along with Danny Kanso, an analyst from the independent, non-partisan think tank The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Kausche represents District 50 which includes most of Johns Creek. McLaurin represents District 51 which includes parts of Sandy Springs and southwest Johns Creek. Both were elected in 2018 and are Democrats.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget office has asked departments to prepare to cut 14 percent from expenditures to make up for revenue shortfalls, the Atlanta Journal Constitution recently reported.
At the town hall, Kanso’s main message, summarizing the recommendations of the GBPI, was that the state should not see broad budget slashing as its main tool to save the state’s finances.
“We are not going to cut our way out of the pandemic,” he said.
Deep cuts to education, health and the safety net would prolong the path to recovery, Kanso argued. By raising the tobacco tax average and rolling back certain tax breaks, the state could raise revenue and offset the need for budget cuts.
Georgia currently has the second lowest tobacco tax in the nation, $0.37 cents per pack. If Georgia raised the tax by $1.50, bringing it in line with the national average, and applied the tax to e-cigarettes and vaping products, the Georgia Budget and Policy institute estimates it could increase revenues by around $600 million a year.
McLaurin pointed out that a decrease in smoking could also reduce the state’s spending on Medicaid and other public health initiatives. Georgia spends about $3.18 billion a year on medical costs associated with cigarette smoking, the policy institute reported.
McLaurin and other Democrats were pushing to raise the tobacco tax before the pandemic, but polling shows bipartisan appeal. A 2018 poll by the GBPI and a recent poll by the American Heart Association both showed around three-quarters of Georgians support the change.
McLaurin and Kausche encouraged residents to reach out their legislators if they had specific concerns about the budget, saying public input played a big role in stopping certain budget cuts earlier this spring.