RINCON — During its meeting at The Herald Center on Thursday, the Rotary Club of Effingham County was addressed by a well-informed hermit.
Well, the featured speaker, Georgia House District 161 Rep. Bill Hitchens, wasn’t exactly a hermit but, like many people, he has kept a low profile lately. He has mostly sheltered in place with his wife in their Rincon home since the General Assembly shut down due to COVID-19 in March.
“This is really the first time that I’ve been out anywhere since we came back,” Hitchens, sporting an uncharacteristic beard, said. “I think we left Atlanta on March 11.”
The General Assembly is set to reconvene next week. It faces the difficult task of passing a supplemental 2020 budget and balancing the Fiscal Year 2021 budget. Only 11 legislative days remain to get the job done.
“What (COVID-19) has done to our budget is that there is no tax money coming in,” Hitchens said. “People are still buying groceries as a necessity but, as you know, back in 1997 we took the tax off groceries. There is still a local tax but there is no state tax.”
Lawmakers have been confronted with the unpleasant choice between furloughing teachers and other state employees or keeping them on the job at reduced pay.
“(The budget pain) is going to be significant,” Hitchens said.
Gov. Brian Kemp recently notified lawmakers that he is seeking 11 percent across-the-board spending reductions instead of the 14 percent he originally anticipated.
“Everybody is going to get it,” Hitchens said. “Education is going to get. The judges are upset because they are going to get it — probably twenty or twenty-one furlough days.
“I hope we can find a way to get out of it.”
Hitchens’ hope rests in the federal government, which provided states with a massive infusion of cash when their budgets were hemorrhaging red ink during the recession of 2010. The total amount of the aid was $140 billion.
Georgia revenue in May was $1.58 billion, a decrease of $178 million from the same period last year. Year-to-date tax collections are down four percent.
Hitchens is also concerned about preserving jobs. He noted that Gulfstream, which is in his district, recently laid off 350 employees.
“And many of those are permanent,” he said.
More than a third of Georgia’s pre-pandemic workforce has applied for unemployment since March, according to officials from Georgia’s Department of Labor. The trend is improving, however.
Georgians filed 149,163 unemployment claims last week, down more than 16,000 from the week before. It marked the fourth decline during the last five weeks.
“The odd thing about this is that a lot of people won’t go back to work now because — if they draw unemployment (benefits) — they are drawing $600 a week from the feds and $350 a week from the state,” Hitchens said. “A lot of people are making more money sitting at home ...”