Georgia taxpayers could be in for a third round of income tax rebates next year now that the state is reporting another hefty budget surplus. But a progressive-leaning think tank that keeps a close eye on Georgia fiscal policies is arguing the tax rebates Gov. Brian Kemp and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly adopted during the last two legislative sessions came at the expense of critical government services that have been underfunded since the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

The state completed fiscal 2023 at the end of last month with a surplus estimated at nearly $4.8 billion—not as much black ink as the $6.6 billion surplus at the end of the previous year, but still hefty and far above the estimate the Georgia Department of Revenue put out in January.

Kemp and lawmakers used the last two budget surpluses to fund state income tax rebates of $1 billion last year and $1.6 billion in 2021. That translated into tax rebates of $250 for single taxpayers in each of the last two years and $500 for married taxpayers filing jointly. Those rebates are the result of conservative budgeting by the governor, said state Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We’re elected to be good stewards of other people’s money,” he said. “That’s why we are where we are.”

But Danny Kanso, senior fiscal analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the fiscal 2023 surplus represents part of a three-year pattern of flat spending that is failing to meet the needs of Georgians in such vital areas as health care and public education. “Despite the massive amount of cash on hand, our leaders continue to stand by as conditions worsen across state government, with record employee turnover and understaffing in critical areas such as human services,” Kanso said. “In the absence of a strategy to deploy these funds, a decade-plus of austerity still looms over state agencies and core functions of government.”

Case in point: When Kemp signed the $32.4 billion fiscal 2024 state budget in May, he vetoed nine spending line items and instructed state agencies to ignore an astounding 134 others. Among the casualties was a pay raise of $6 an hour the General Assembly had earmarked for direct care workers serving Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities. At the time, Kemp argued the legislature failed to provide the estimated $105 million that would be required to pay for the raises. The governor and lawmakers also slashed the University System of Georgia’s budget by $66 million, drawing fire from system Chancellor and former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

On the other hand, the spending plan also included pay raises of $4,000–$6,000 for law enforcement officers and $2,000 increases for other state workers, teachers and university system employees. The budget fully funds Georgia’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) K-12 student funding formula with a record $13.1 billion in state dollars and covers 100% of tuition for Georgia’s HOPE scholars for the first time since 2011.

But Kemp said he’s reluctant to commit the unexpectedly large surplus to recurring spending on government services because of the uncertain nature of tax revenues. Up to a point, Tillery agreed. “I’m always going to be leery of adding to base budgets when revenues are unpredictable,” he said. “We’ve got a piggy bank right now, but we can’t make next year’s budget with that. We have to make it on what’s going to come in.”

However, Tillery said some new spending may be in order. “Some one-time expenses we need to invest in, particularly infrastructure,” he said. “We don’t have as many [state] workers anymore. We may have to do some things from a capital [spending] standpoint.”

The exact size of the surplus at this point is unknown. The state will release a more complete accounting this fall that details actual spending and total tax collections, including other sources of revenue that have not yet been reported.

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