Saturday, October 25th, 2014
Half-True
Wilson
Says Democratic candidate for state school superintendent Alisha Thomas Morgan voted to slash funding for the preschool programs for disabled and special needs students.

Valarie Wilson on Wednesday, May 14th, 2014 in a pamphlet

Georgia superintendent candidate criticizes opponent for past votes

Georgia school superintendent candidate Valarie Thomas sent this pamphlet to voters about Democratic opponent Alisha Thomas Morgan.

Educators for several years have lamented state budget cuts to public schools.

That’s why it’s likely no surprise that Valarie Wilson, a candidate for state school superintendent, is trying to make political hay of the fact that her opponent and fellow Democrat Alisha Thomas Morgan had a hand in those cuts.

In a recent campaign flier, Wilson accused Morgan, her July runoff opponent, of, among other things, voting to slash funding in 2010 for programs to help disabled preschoolers and other special needs students.

We wondered whether that was true and decided to crank up the Truth-O-Meter.

Wilson, a former chairwoman of the Decatur school board, points out that candidate Morgan touts her role on the House Appropriations education subcommittee and the leverage it gave her.

"I am not a legislator," Wilson said. "However, I believe that every vote cast or decision made reflects priorities and values."

We scoured state budget documents and were able to confirm that Wilson is technically right. Morgan, a member of the Georgia House since 2003, voted in favor of an amended 2010 state budget that included cuts to the program for disabled preschoolers, as well to a program giving scholarships to special needs students who want to attend private schools. (The amended budget -- House Bill 947 -- passed in 2010, with 122 yes votes, including Morgan’s, and 44 no votes, so an argument could be made that the budget would have passed without Morgan’s vote.)

But there’s more to the story.

First of all, these cuts were made when Georgia and the nation were in the aftermath of what’s come to be known as the Great Recession. In January 2010, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue was asking lawmakers -- Morgan included --  to cut $1.2 billion out of a budget that had already been in place for six months.

Revenue was bleak -- down $136 million, or 8.7 percent, just for that month.

The program to help disabled 3- and 4-year-olds be better prepared for school didn’t escape the cutting. Neither did the special needs scholarship program.

The $29 million budget for the preschool disabled program was cut about $2 million. About $1 million of that came from furloughing employees and cuts to employer insurance premiums  --- something that was done across all of state government.

Morgan’s campaign points out that the preschool budget was cut by a smaller percentage, nearly 6.9 percent, than most departments. Records show state spending to pre-school was cut less than many departments, such as Agriculture, Economic Development, Natural Resources and the Regents System.

Funding for the private school scholarships was cut $4 million, and officials in the House Budget Office say that was based strictly on the state’s education funding formula.

It’s true that the state budget can, in theory, be amended when it hits the floor of either the House or Senate.

Rule 108.3 spells out the protocol in the House. "No amendment to any appropriations bill shall be in order if the amendment has the effect of both reducing one appropriation and either increasing another appropriation or adding a new appropriation. No amendment to any appropriations bill increasing any appropriation or adding a new appropriation shall be in order unless there has previously been adopted an amendment reducing some other appropriation so as to make funds available for such new or increased appropriation; and no amendment to any appropriations bill shall be in order which would cause the bill to violate the balanced budget requirements of the Constitution."

Longtime observers say floor amendments to the budget have been tried a few times, but rarely.

Michael Brewer, Morgan’s deputy campaign manager, said the claims in Wilson’s flier are "intellectually disingenuous, at best."

They overlook the tough economic times and the state’s obligation to balance its budget and pay its bills, he said.

"Tough choices were made to tighten the state’s belt, so to speak, without raising taxes on Georgia families during the difficult economic recession," Brewer said. "Cuts were made across the board to every state agency and department, and legislators did everything they could to reduce and stymie those cuts to education."

In the 2014 state budget approved by lawmakers last year, funding for the preschool disabled program was back to $29 million, the amount it was before the 2010 midyear cuts, he pointed out. Morgan also voted in favor of that budget.

In summary, Wilson is correct that Morgan voted for an amended state budget for 2010 that included cuts to the preschool disabled program and a scholarship program for special needs students.

But a lot of context is needed to understand the claim.

The state was in economic hard times in 2010, and cuts were being ordered across all state agencies, with sign-off from a majority of the General Assembly, not just Morgan. These programs represent a small fraction of the state’s multibillion-dollar annual budget.

PolitiFact has encountered many cases where candidates accuse elected officials of supporting cuts without noting that these votes were parts of larger budget decisions.

Wilson’s attack against Morgan omits key context. It is accurate but misleading.  

We rate the statement as Half True.