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State budget sails through House
Transportation funding would get boost in the plan
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Georgia lawmakers unanimously passed an amended spending plan Friday that will guide state agencies' spending through June.

The $18.6 billion budget plan calls for spending $300 million on a toll highway meant to alleviate congestion in metro Atlanta.

It also includes assistance for farmers who say they are struggling to find enough workers following the state's crackdown on illegal immigrants.

When the budget proposal came to a vote on the state House floor, it didn't attract any opposition, which lawmakers said they never remembered happening before.

Carl Rogers, a Gainesville Republican, said it had at least been "a long, long time" since the chamber voted so harmoniously on spending.

But he noted the absence of a Republican lawmaker notorious for opposing state spending plans.

"The person that always voted against it has passed on, Bobby Franklin," Rogers said. "He voted against every budget."

Franklin died from heart complications last year.

Total state spending would increase just over 1 percent under the plan, which still needs approval from the Senate.

Lawmakers made relatively small changes to a proposal Republican Gov. Nathan Deal introduced earlier this month.

Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Oakwood, said he didn't agree with all of the provisions under than the plan, but he did agree with the "overall picture."

"I feel good about it," Dunahoo said of the plan sent to the Senate Friday. "Is it perfect? No ... It's not perfect, but I think it's sufficient."

Republican leaders were reluctant to seriously increase spending despite higher tax revenues over the past year-and-a-half.

But a sharp increase in oil prices, a European recession or currency crisis, or federal spending cuts still could hamper Georgia's tepid economic recovery and reduce the state's revenue, said Rep. Terry England, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I'm taking a pretty cautious view," the Auburn Republican said. "We're still on very fragile ground, fragile footing. You have so many things that can affect (the economy) in a negative way very quickly."

Transportation funding would get a boost in the plan. It would earmark about $300 million for a toll highway called the Northwest Corridor, designed to alleviate congestion on Interstates 75 and 575 in metro Atlanta.

The years-old plan, backed by Deal in his State of the State speech, would cost about $1 billion.

The extra transportation funding would be made possible by a one-time tapping of motor fuel taxes from earlier years.

England said that money cannot be used to fund other areas of state government, such as Georgia's education system, which has absorbed more than $1 billion in cuts.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black's department would get $75,000 to pay for state liaisons to help farmers find laborers using a federal guest worker program that grants visas to foreigners willing to work in the agricultural sector.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law cracking down on illegal immigrants, including many Hispanics who harvest labor-intensive fruit and vegetable crops.

Farmers have since said they cannot find enough field hands, costing them millions of dollars in losses.

The law requires businesses with 500 or more employees use a federal database called E-Verify to check whether their new hires are allowed to legally work in the country. That requirement will gradually expand until it includes companies with 10 or more employees by July 2013. It also makes it a felony crime with serious penalties to use false information or documents when applying for a job.

In June, a federal judge blocked other parts of the law pending a legal challenge from immigrant rights and civil liberties groups.

Recent surveys conducted by Black's office showed many farmers were either unaware of the federal guest worker program or said they found it too cumbersome for their businesses.

Black said he wants the new liaisons to help farmers apply for workers in time for the upcoming spring harvest.

"Hopefully, it will allow us to move pretty quickly, so we'd have someone available this spring to be able to help," Black said.

The House budget plan also would:

  • Add $35,000 to fund new staff at the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates misconduct by judges. Deal had proposed a $53,000 increase.
  • Cut $200,000 for business assistance grants run by the Department of Community Affairs.
  • Restore grants for the Mercer School of Medicine, the Morehouse School of Medicine and increase the funding available to repay the student debt of doctors who commit to working in rural areas.
  • Restore funding for three Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents.

Democratic lawmakers generally supported the plan, said Rep. Stacey Abrams, House minority leader. She did not anticipate trying to amend it Friday.

"It's the first year in recent memory that they've come close to funding key initiatives. The investment in education funding we appreciate," Abrams said.

Georgia lawmakers have not yet addressed Deal's spending plan for the coming fiscal year.

Staff writer Ashley Fielding contributed to this report.


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