Friday, January 23, 2009

DHR Commissioner Details Budget Pain

State budget writers today heard from the heads of Georgia's social services and health care.

B.J. Walker addressed lawmakers this morning. She’s in charge of the largest state agency, the Department of Human Resources. And it’s where the state budget crisis might be felt the most.

Walker has to manage an agency budget of around $3.8 billion. Her department was hit by the budget-ax last summer, and it’s bracing for more in the Governor’s recommendations for the next fiscal year.

"Given the times we’re in and what we have to work with, I’m comfortable the Governor put us through a rigorous enough process that what he has put on the table, is something I can figure out how to make work."

But, Walker did admit to lawmakers Friday the challenge of "making it work" will be tougher with heavier across-the-board cuts to come in fiscal budget year 2010.

Last summer, DHR began one-day-a-month furloughs for a bulk of its 19,000 employees. The state hopes the move saves more than $100-million. And more furloughs could be on the way. Cutbacks are everywhere in the department, with money being pulled from all services, such as children and family services, and programs for the elderly.

Mental health services are in the firing line also. The state just recently signed an agreement with federal officials promising the troubled system will be vastly improved in the next five years. The obvious question today to Walker--how to do that, given budget cutbacks?

"We know that we’ll probably need some sort of resources at some point. But we have not fully calculated what that need is at this time...we’re working that through right now, and I’m sure we’ll be bringing some ideas about that at some point."

Walker did say the option of privatizing at least a portion of the mental health system is still an option--if it makes sense fiscally.

As budget committee hearings concluded at the Capitol today, Walker may have delivered the best line in summing-up how she’s trying to manage her department’s budget.

"It is my intent to go through these times not worrying about is it raining, or worrying about how to get out of the rain, but it’s my intent to figure out how you can dance in it."

-By Edgar Treiguts

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