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Georgia House wants more state money for public health, nursing homes
01212021 Kemp
Gov. Brian Kemp receives information from his Chief Operations Officer Ryan Loke during a COVID-19 update press conference Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia House lawmakers want to shift more money into public health and nursing homes, saying the state needs to spend more in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

House appropriations subcommittees on Tuesday made proposed changes to the current year's budget, a yearly ritual that's on a fast track in 2021 because of fears that the pandemic could disrupt the General Assembly's session. The full House could vote on the changes as early as Thursday. The Senate would consider the changes after that.

House lawmakers propose adding nearly $34 million into the state Department of Public Health, after Gov. Brian Kemp had proposed no new spending from state money, instead relying on federal coronavirus relief for now.

"The pandemic, I think, has exposed critical staffing needs in the Department of Public Health and federal funds have been used where we've been able to do that, but we still need to put in some state funds," said House Appropriations Health Subcommittee Chairman Butch Parrish, a Swainsboro Republican.

The moves propose no new state spending, leaving the bottom line of state dollars at $26.6 billion. But the proposals do shift money around, taking savings that have often been generated because of vacant employee positions or stalled programs and shifting them elsewhere.

With tax collections running hundreds of millions ahead of this year's forecast, Kemp had already proposed putting $567 million back into the state's K-12 funding formula, and giving universities and technical colleges more money. House subcommittees ratified those moves Tuesday.

Of the money for public health, $18 million would go to modernize and replace the computer system that tracks immunizations statewide. That system, the Georgia Registry of Immunization Transactions and Services, has been in the spotlight in recent days as the state has struggled to keep up with how many coronavirus vaccines health care providers have administered.

The state would also set aside $286,000 to bolster Department of Public Health leadership, including hiring a chief medical officer, a deputy commissioner and a chief data officer. The department has faced repeated complaints about how it publishes data during the pandemic, subcontracting much of its public data presentation.

Public Health would also get $15.4 million more to increase support for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides HIV/AIDS medications to low income people.

Under the House proposal, Georgia would also spend $19.3 million more to subsidize nursing homes.

"The skilled nursing centers have seen significant decreases in occupancy leading to large revenue losses, as well as increased costs associated with staff wages, hazard pay, overtime, PPE, cleaning and testing materials," Parrish said.

House members approved plans Kemp proposed to shift funds in the state prison and juvenile justice systems to give guards a 10% raise beginning April 1.

Kemp had already proposed spending tens of millions in one-time money on new vehicles, but the House upped the ante by proposing $38.6 million to buy roughly 500 new school buses statewide.

Some of the moves were to restore money that was cut by lawmakers in June when they feared revenues would be worse. Many agencies took roughly 10% cuts. The House proposes to restore $8.1 million to university agriculture and research units that depend heavily on state funding because they don't have tuition-paying students. The House would also restore money to court system operating budgets, and would set aside new money to try to attract forensic pathologists to conduct autopsies for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

A new 10-bed crisis facility for intellectually disabled adults with mental health problems would be opened using $1.8 million in federal money.