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Georgia House passes $44.6B budget for Senate review
Funding plan adds money for schools, seeks local districts to chip in for benefits
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A $44.6 billion 2016 fiscal year state budget approved Thursday by the Georgia House would close previous cuts to public education spending, slash funding for low-interest student loans and ask local school districts to make $103 million more in employer contributions to keep state insurance coverage for some part-time school employees.

The last item goes against Gov. Nathan Deal’s recommendation to eliminate state insurance coverage altogether for the part-time school workers, such as school bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

The 171-2 vote sends the budget plan to the Senate, which will take up negotiations next week. Any changes made by senators would have to be reconciled before the 40-day session ends. Deal then can sign, reject or make changes to the plan.

The House version is a starting point, and lawmakers said there is a lot of work remaining before a balanced budget is ready for Deal to sign.

And looming large is a proposed $1 billion transportation bill. If approved, this expense would have to be rolled into any budget the House and Senate can agree on, perhaps through an amendment or a supplemental adjustment.

“There are areas that we always want to fund more than we can,” said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, adding that this is particularly true with regard to health care. “I think all in all it’s a very strong budget, a very reasonable budget.”

Democrats, on the other hand, found plenty to dislike in the House budget and are already gearing up for a fight.

“Senate Democrats will be looking closely at the budget proposal as it makes its way through our committee process,” said Liz Flowers, executive director of the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus.

“We have a number of concerns, including a budget provision that would kick back to local school systems insurance costs for school bus drivers and cafeteria workers,”

Deal’s budget staff expects tax revenue to grow more than 4 percent during the next fiscal year starting July 1. About $21.7 billion of the total proposed budget comes from Georgia’s revenues. The rest is mostly federal money.

The budget also includes funding for new or expanded education programs at the state’s prisons, aimed at helping inmates earn a degree or develop technical skills while serving time.

House lawmakers also gave judges on the Supreme and Appeals courts a $12,000 salary boost and maintained a $23 million bond for a parking deck near the new Atlanta Falcons stadium in downtown Atlanta.

Deal’s request to fund 278 new caseworkers to investigate complaints of abused or neglected children and 11 caseworkers to investigate elder abuse remains in the plan.

The House also made cuts to a low interest student loan program that Deal wanted to increase.

The House plan also offers less funding for new staff at the state’s ethics commission. Tasked with enforcing campaign and ethics laws, auditors said the commission failed to consider a single complaint for a year and a half.

House leadership left much of Deal’s recommended budget untouched, including adding $280 million back to public school spending. The total remains about $500 million short of what the state’s funding formula recommends.

However, public education got another funding boost late last week when lawmakers approved a midyear adjustment to the current 2015 budget.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said it is typical for lawmakers to direct new spending toward education because it’s not so controversial.

With tax revenues above projections, lawmakers approved spending an additional $276 million this year, a 1.3 percent increase.

Rep. Tim Barr, R-Lawrenceville called the mid-year adjustment “one of the most important pieces of legislation of the year.”

About $128 million is directed to increase enrollment in public education, with $35 million to fund competitive grants to local schools for broadband connectivity, and $75,000 for the new Education Reform Commission.

The budget adjustment also directs more than $500,000 to establish the Georgia Film Academy, plus millions of dollars in higher education scholarships, GED education and vocational training in jails and prisons.

Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said that while he understands that public education has faced dramatic funding cuts in recent years, he wishes lawmakers were more focused on directing new spending toward transportation projects.

“It seems like education always takes precedence over pretty much anything,” he added.

Additional spending from the midyear adjustment is targeted at child welfare, public health and safety, and economic development programs.

For example, $4.9 million has been set aside to hire 103 new child protective services caseworkers, in addition to 175 positions previously budgeted.

Meanwhile, more than $4 million will flow to the Department of Transportation for routine road maintenance, and $40 million is headed to agencies supporting economic development projects.

Finally, $4.8 million is going to the state Board of Regents to pay for medical marijuana clinical trials.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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