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Ga. agencies preparing to impose sharp budget cuts
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    ATLANTA — Georgia agencies are preparing for sharp budget cuts by freezing open positions, slashing travel expenses, delaying new hiring and even ordering state employees to take time off without pay.
    The cuts are a reflection of Georgia’s mounting $1.6 billion budget deficit, which forced Gov. Sonny Perdue to order most state agencies to cut their budgets by 6 percent. Perdue also warned the agencies to prepare for broader cuts if tax collections continue to plummet.
    The reduced budgets are due next month and agencies are still scrambling to prepare their reductions. But some have already started notifying employees of their plans, and they give a bleak glimpse at the state’s financial woes.
    Most state agencies are already putting plans in place to freeze new hiring and restrict travel expenses. Many will also have to cut programs to meet the reductions.
    Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox is preparing to slash roughly $153 million, which could sap funding for a teacher mentoring program, new charter schools and graduation coaches aimed at reducing dropout rates.
    The Department of Human Resources has already asked some employees to take a day off without pay each month, said spokeswoman Taka Wiley. So has Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who said he might be forced to ask staffers to take up to three furlough days each month.
    ‘‘It’s spreading the cost,’’ he said. ‘‘Do you put it all on the backs of a few people, or do you have everybody equally contribute? We thought it was more equitable to have everyone equally contribute.’’
    Agency heads have also launched more inventive ways to slash spending.
    Human resources officials have staved off new vehicle purchases. Oxendine is restricting printing and purchasing to manilla folders instead of more expensive colored ones. And parks supervisors are considering closing parks and hiking fees.
    ‘‘We’re going to have to do more than freeze positions and cut travel to get there,’’ said Beth Brown, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.
    Perdue said he has had little choice but to order the cuts, which also include a 5 percent reduction in Medicaid funding and 2 percent cuts to education funding for local schools.
    Lagging tax collections have already forced Perdue to use $600 million in reserve funds to make ends meet, and there’s little hope the fiscal tide is turning: Georgia’s revenues fell another 6.6 percent for the month of July.
    He’s also under increasing pressure from legislators — and some department heads — to call for a special legislative session.
    Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, a Democrat, said legislators need to reconvene to erase the hundreds of new employees approved in the latest budget.
    ‘‘If we didn’t have them before, why do we have to have them now,’’ said Irvin, who has already cut the three new positions his department was expected to receive.
    As the sluggish economy continues to lag, though, this may just be the first round of budget cuts.
    ‘‘The things we’re talking about now are the easy things,’’ said Alan Essig, director of the nonpartisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. ‘‘They are not the more sweeping cuts that are most likely inevitable.’’
    The institute is among the loudest supporters of a special session to raise state funds. Among its suggestions: Hiking the cigarette tax or eliminating a new $428 million property tax credit program.
    ‘‘If revenue is off the table,’’ Essig said, ‘‘it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.’’

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