13 Apr Lawmakers Pass $18 Billion State Budget (GA)

April 13, 2011

By: James Salzer
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The General Assembly approved an $18.3 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year Tuesday that cuts college funding and borrows from Medicaid to prop up the teacher, employee and retiree health care system.

The measure also borrows $675 million for construction of schools, college buildings and other facilities.

Negotiators signed off on the deal Tuesday morning. The spending plan passed the House 143-32 Tuesday afternoon and the Senate 48-6 later in the day. It  now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

The budget has a huge impact on Georgians. It helps pay for the education of about 2 million public school students, provides health care to about 1.5 million Georgians and funds all or part of the salaries of more than 200,000 teachers and other employees. The budget pays for roads to be built and patrolled, criminals to be kept in prison and allows the state to regulate everything from insurance and banks to real estate licensing.

The budget for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, mostly follows the spending proposal Deal made in January.

However, budget-writers had a few surprises along the way. They knew they would have to deal with the loss of more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funding. However, half-way through the session, they found out the state health care plan for teachers, state employees and retirees was short $275 million to $300 million. So they voted to raise premiums and borrow from Medicaid, the state-federal health care plan for the poor and disabled, to make up for it. Premiums for teachers, employees and retirees will increase at least 10 percent next year, maybe more.

A sizable cut in state higher education funding will likely mean substantial tuition increases at the state’s colleges and universities. However, state funding for K-12 schools will remain about the same as this year. That’s an improvement over recent years, when schools have seen massive spending cuts.

“I think we’ve done the best we could do under the circumstances,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville.”While we have some problems, I don’t know of any states I would want to swap places with.”

But Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said the budget continued the “underfunding of education.”

“Georgia cannot continue to stop its investment in … education and be a first-rate state,” he said.

While university system funding was cut, the new budget funds several college campus construction projects. Georgia Tech gets $4.2 million to construct a commons area on campus. The stateis borrowing $18 million for infrastructure expansions and new classrooms at Kennesaw State University. The University of Georgia gets $3.2 million to design a science center, and Georgia Gwinnett College gets $7.1 million for campus-wide projects.

The budget also allocates almost $4 million to pay for a special session lawmakers will hold later this year to draw congressional and legislative political boundaries based on the 2010 census. Legislators redraw political boundaries each decade. Deal has not yet set a date for the special session.

In addition, lawmakers included about $18 million to pay the interest on money the state borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment claims during the recession.

Deal gave lawmakers a little bit of breathing room last week by increasing the revenue estimate — the amount of money the state expects in tax collections — by $47 million. That allowed them to approve $47 million more in spending.

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