Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The planned closing — for the most part — of the Georgia Archives has outraged many. Defenders call the archive a cornerstone of democracy. Yet officials plan to curtail hours to meet budget cuts, making Georgia the only state where the public lacks full-time access to thousands of records. An archive supporter and the secretary of state discuss the decision.
Archive faces death by a thousand cuts
By Timothy J. Crimmins
When Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced the all-but-complete closing of the Georgia Archives to public access last week, he unleashed a firestorm of protest. Acting quickly to quell the reaction, on Tuesday he ordered the firing of seven of the nine professionals at the archive . If Secretary Kemp is allowed to carry out his plan, every Georgian will suffer.
Genealogists and historians are seen as the natural constituents of the archive , but all citizens must be concerned because public access to records is vital for open government. Democracies require not just free elections, but also open access to records of governmental actions.
Secretary Kemp’s coup de grâce is the culmination of a five-year process of death by a thousand cuts. From 2008 to 2010, the layoffs of experienced archivists began the service decline. Last year, additional staff reductions limited public access to two days a week. Now, with only two professional archivists remaining, the archive is effectively closed to the public. Georgia is alone in the nation in taking such draconian action.
The records in the collection are a critical pillar of support in an effective democracy, but they also are important to economic development. They have been used to identify caves where methane gas could be collected, to locate ideal soils for vineyards and to find forest locations for the reintroduction of the American chestnut. In conjunction with its neighboring National Archives building, the Georgia Archives generates tourist dollars.
Records collected in the archive save money for taxpayers. In recent years, two Georgia counties spent a million dollars in legal fees because of a boundary dispute over the sales tax from a store on a county line. After an exhaustive search, the archive’s staff could not find definitive records and litigation ensued. More commonly, millions are saved because records can be found to solve tax disputes.
Secretary Kemp is shuttering the archive in response to a mandate from Gov. Nathan Deal to reduce his budget by 3 percent. He made the decision to make the Georgia Archives carry the entire burden of this cut. His staff reductions are targeted to the dedicated and loyal archivists whose collection and curation knowledge is essential to the proper functioning of the archive .
Secretary Kemp has a number of divisions for which his office is responsible. In addition to preserving and protecting vital records in the archive , his office oversees the running of elections and the registration of corporations. Of these three vital functions, Secretary Kemp has exempted two and decided that the Georgia Archives must carry the full burden of his cuts.
His justification for shuttering the archive is that further cuts will endanger election operations or incorporations. But must he pit the needs of two vital processes against those of a third? Why can’t other units suffer a 2 percent cut? Why can’t his satellite operations be closed?
Gov. Deal has the power to reverse Kemp’s decision. Georgians must let him know that closing the archive to public access is not an option.
Timothy J. Crimmins is vice chairman of the Friends of the Georgia Archives and History.
Priority is for cuts to affect fewest possible
By Brian Kemp
Any budget, no matter if it is a family budget or a state budget, reflects our priorities. These priorities are not based solely on wants or needs, but rather on what can be afforded. During these difficult economic times, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office simply cannot afford to keep the State Archives open to the public.
The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) instructed my office to reduce our budget by 3 percent ($732,626) for the coming year. While this cut is steep, it reflects only a small portion of the millions of dollars in reductions we have already absorbed over the past several years. Our agency budget has been cut by more than 25 percent, from $32.1 million in 2008 to $23.7 million for the coming year — an $8.4 million decrease. To put this in staffing terms, our agency has reduced its workforce by 38 percent, from 350 to 216 employees.
As secretary of state, it is my job to ensure that budgetary decisions strategically reflect our highest priorities and affect as few Georgians as possible. Federal government requirements prevent us from considering cuts to the budget of the State Elections Division. We cannot and will not jeopardize secure, accessible and fair elections in Georgia.
Our Securities Division is charged with protecting Georgians from financial fraud. Because of increased responsibilities from the Dodd-Frank Act and the fact that the division’s budget has been reduced from $1,804,043 to $833,891 since 2008, any further reduction would leave Georgia’s citizens vulnerable.
The Corporations Division processes hundreds of thousands of registrations for Georgia businesses and produced $44 million in fees for the state last year. If the division’s budget of $1.3 million was cut and staff was reduced, the wait times for corporation filings and renewals would increase.
Nowhere have budget cuts been felt more by the citizens of Georgia than in the Professional Licensing Boards Division (PLB). This division protects Georgians by ensuring almost 500,000 qualified individuals are licensed to work.
Because of past reductions and increased workloads, Georgians are now waiting, on average, five times longer to renew a professional license and more than three months for a new license to be granted. Last year in the PLB call center, one out of every four callers was unable to reach an operator. Further cuts would reduce efficiency, reduce revenue and lengthen the time it takes to get Georgians working.
The Secretary of State’s Office is unique in that last year it generated $81.5 million in fees, but it receives a state appropriation of only $23.7 million to perform the duties of the office. This is less than a third of what we take in, and this unfortunate reality means that only funded functions can be maintained.
It is my sincere desire for budget conditions to improve so that the 3 percent cut would be eliminated, or an additional state appropriation can be made, so that Georgians can once again have improved access to the State Archives.
Brian Kemp is Georgia’s secretary of state.