Georgia lawmakers again Monday raised the idea of imposing salary reductions instead of furloughs for some state employees and elected officials like judges and attorneys amid the need for spending cuts spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
With state prosecutors, public defenders and judges facing weeks of furlough, some members of the Senate Appropriations Judicial Subcommittee on Monday floated temporary pay cuts as a way to trim spending without impairing the court system’s ability to speedily process cases.
“We may have to think outside of the box a little bit,” said Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who chairs the subcommittee. “Would this be better with a salary reduction as opposed to a furlough?”
“It’s just how are we going to do this and what mechanisms are we going to use to get there,” Ligon added.
Salary reductions were mentioned last week as a possible option for the state’s preschool teachers to shoulder some of the financial burden as lawmakers look to cut between $3 billion and $4 billion from the 2021 fiscal year budget. But that notion drew pushback from some lawmakers opposed to pulling wages from teachers.
The General Assembly is set to reconvene later this month and has until July 1 to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Proposed furloughs were outlined Monday amounting to between 13 and 44 days for state prosecutors, 40 days for superior court judges and their staff, 13 days for Georgia Supreme Court justices, 18 days for District Attorney Chris Carr’s office and 24 days for the Georgia Public Defender Council.
With those furlough days, judges and attorneys critical to the court system would be forced to take several days off work at a time when cases have piled up and defendants awaiting trial have stayed imprisoned longer amid the coronavirus pandemic, several state agency heads said Monday.
In practice, judges would likely still report for duty to help clear the case backlog even if furlough days are implemented, said Henry County Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Amero. He told lawmakers Monday thousands of criminal defendants are currently in jail who need to have their day in court.
“If you furlough [judges], that will just be a word on paper,” Amero said. “We will not be working less. We will be working more.”
“The extent to which this avalanche of work is about to hit superior court judges cannot be overstated,” he added.
Simply slicing salaries could be complicated since doing so would have a secondary effect of reducing an employee’s retirement contribution, which would not happen with furloughs. Also, some elected positions like judges cannot have their compensation changed during their terms in office.
For that reason, justices on the state’s highest court are willing to take voluntary pay cuts, said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton.
“We can voluntarily decline pay,” Melton said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Amid the complications, some lawmakers at Monday’s meeting still pressed agency heads on whether pay reductions could help judges and attorneys keep working to clear their case backlog instead of having them take days off.
Rep. Andrew Welch, who chairs the House Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee, wondered whether temporary salary reductions could provide more savings since the state would not have to contribute as much to retirement plans. But he acknowledged the trickiness of reducing salaries for judges as opposed to furloughs.
“Neither of these are desirable,” said Welch, R-McDonough. “We respect the Constitution but at the same time, I think that’s why we’re asking about alternatives and voluntary need of judges to participate in perhaps that [salary] rate reduction.”
Meanwhile, the state Public Defender Council urged lawmakers Monday to be spared from budget cuts as rising unemployment in the state has driven up the number of cases for public defenders in recent months.
The council’s executive director, Omotayo Alli, said adopting furlough days and other spending cuts needed to meet a 14% budget reduction would impair the ability of Georgia’s public defenders to handle their growing caseloads.
“The criminal justice system is going to crash,” Alli said. “And that is no one’s wish.”
Receiving an exemption from the cuts may be wishful thinking as some lawmakers Monday highlighted the importance for all state-funded agencies and employees to absorb the pain of the coronavirus-prompted budget cuts.
“We’re all in one boat called the state of Georgia,” Ligon said. “Each agency has an oar for keeping that board moving in the right direction and staying above water as we navigate these dangerous rapids caused by [coronavirus].”
According to the state Department of Public Health, as of Monday evening, there were a confirmed 47,899 total cases in Georgia, 8,302 hospitalizations and 2,089 deaths. Bartow County has had 481 confirmed cases, 136 hospitalizations and 38 total deaths.
Georgia schools given guidelines for reopening amid COVID-19
Georgia school officials released guidelines Monday on how to reopen the state’s public schools for the 2020-2021 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The guideline document, called “Georgia’s Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools,” outlines steps local schools should take to prevent the highly infectious virus from entering classroom environments and to curb its spread if an outbreak occurs.
Georgia’s school districts halted in-person classes in more than 2,200 schools starting in late March as concerns ramped up over coronavirus. The state’s roughly 1.7 million students were left to finish the remainder of their spring-semester coursework via online means.
In recent weeks, Gov. Brian Kemp has moved to reopen sectors of the state’s economy and social activities, including summer school classes that can be held starting this month. Summer schools would have to keep students separated in classrooms and routinely sanitize facilities.
The 10-page guideline document released Monday leaves it to school districts whether to close school buildings in the event the virus spreads. It also calls for districts to participate in contact tracing with state health officials, place educational signs on good hygiene in school buildings and decide how to handle students and teachers who show symptoms of the virus.
Additionally, the guidelines note ways for school districts to shift to online learning in the event of an outbreak, as well as to take a “hybrid” approach allowing districts to blend in-person and online learning. If the virus spreads at a “moderate” level, the guidelines advise schools to screen students and staff before they enter buildings and to require students to keep space between each other in cafeterias, classrooms and hallways.
“In partnership with the Georgia Department of Public Health, we created these guidelines to give school districts a blueprint for safe reopening that is realistic in the K-12 setting,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods wrote in the document. “We have a responsibility to keep out students, teachers, school staff and families safe and to provide the best possible education for our children.”
The guidelines will likely not be the last word on how Georgia should resume classes for the 2020-2021 school year. Last month, Kemp and Woods formed six working groups of educators, public health officials and state agency representatives to lead the school reopening effort.
The guidelines also come as the Georgia Department of Education faces across-the-board cuts of around $1.6 billion to all aspects of the agency prompted by the virus, from state administrative offices in Atlanta to specialty programs like agricultural education to everyday basic classroom education.
— Capitol Beat News contributed to this report.