ATLANTA (January 23, 2009) — The Senate and House Appropriations Committees concluded their state budget hearings today with the Departments of Human Resources and Community Health.  Lawmakers also had the chance to address specific areas of the budget during the Office of Planning and Budget’s presentation on their approach to how the FY 2009 and 2010 budgets were structured.   

DHR presented an overview of spending cuts within each program, including their spending plans for the future reorganization of the department.  The governor announced in August the creation of a new Department of Behavioral Health, encompassing mental health and addictive disease programs, while the Department of Community Health will be merged with the public health and health regulation programs of DHR to make up a reconstituted Department of Health.  Lawmakers are most concerned with how the department will cut costs while creating new departments. 

Department of Community Health Commissioner Dr. Rhonda Meadows spoke to the committee to address the governor’s proposed 5 percent cut to their operating budget for the rest of FY 2009.  She mentioned several initiatives such as utilizing new technologies, stricter eligibility requirements and hiring freezes that her agency will implement to meet the requirements but is concerned that any additional rises in unemployment and subsequent Medicaid enrollment than what is already projected could cause a higher deficit for DCH.  Lawmakers were extremely hesitant to endorse the governor’s proposed hospital provider fee designed to help offset a projected $428 million budget hole that would cover Medicaid and Peachcare funding for FY 2010.  Dr. Meadows confirmed for the committee that this provider fee is a tax and very few hospitals would be eligible for any exemptions under the proposed plan.  She noted that DCH was in the preliminary stages of gauging the hospital fee’s potential impact on legislator’s district hospitals, trauma centers and the method of collecting the tax.

Director Trey Childress from the governor’s Office of Planning and Budgeting then addressed the committees to explain the reasoning behind cuts in the governor’s proposed budget.  He emphasized that they were careful not to make broad based cuts, and looked at each agency individually to assess what reductions could be made.  Legislators showed great concern regarding the disparity of pay raises in education compared to those for other state employees, such as state troopers.  Childress explained that pay raises in education could not be reduced due to contracts that were signed before mid fiscal year adjustments.  Members of the committees once again questioned the reasoning for the proposed elimination of $30 million in state support for school health programs, which includes school nurses.  They cautioned that the reduction could result in negative consequences, such as children being absent from school and parents missing work to provide essential services usually administered by school nurses.

Upon completion of the budget hearings, Sen. Hill held a public meeting for block grants that will be distributed in FY 2010 to agencies across the state for programs including mental health, low-income home energy assistance, substance abuse and treatment, and preventative health.  These hearings give legislators an opportunity to hear how the general public feels these funds should be used.  Public recommendations included directing additional funds to senior citizens.

The Senate and House Appropriations Committees will move forward in the budget process by holding subcommittee meetings to discuss their individual budget areas in more detail.