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How legislators are shifting money in state budget to support their priorities
02182020 Terry England
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England speaks to reporters Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta, after his committee passed an amended midyear budget. The spending plan shifts tens of millions to lawmakers' priorities from Gov. Brian Kemp's plan. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Budget writers in Georgia's House want to preserve money for mental health, substance abuse, public defenders, agricultural research and diverting people away from prison.

While overall spending won't rise above the cuts proposed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, the House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to shift tens of millions to protect programs lawmakers have been trying to build up.

"Those are and have been priorities of the General Assembly, of the House and the Senate, and we feel very strongly about making sure those efforts continue," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican.

The amended document makes midyear changes to Georgia's current state budget, which will spend more than $27 billion in state money and billions more in federal money by June 30. The full House is scheduled to debate the spending plan Feb. 19.

Lawmakers grabbed money from other places to shore up their priorities, including $11 million meant to implement electronic health records in the state prison system and $2.7 million more cut from the Department of Public Safety.

The spending plan wraps up weeks of debate, including a timeout that House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, called amid concerns over cuts and a lack of communication with Kemp administration officials.

Democrats have been seeking to showcase the budget cuts as an election issue, months before all 236 seats in the General Assembly are up for election. However, there was no opposition voiced in committee to the spending plan on Feb. 18.

Kemp proposed more than $200 million in midyear reductions in state spending, citing a shortfall in projected state tax revenues that has been driven in part by a state income tax cut passed in 2018. The $200 million is not a very large slice of Georgia's total spending. But most K-12, college, university and Medicaid spending was exempted from the cuts, meaning they will fall harder on remaining agencies.

Many of Kemp's proposed savings would come from eliminating more than 1,200 employee positions that are vacant but funded.

Kemp wants to cut more than $300 million from agencies next year while also funding pay raises for teachers and low-paid state employees.

One particular focus of lawmakers has been protecting money for mental health and developmental disabilities. The House version would add a total of $7.5 million back to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. That would increase treatment beds for substance abuse, give more money to train adults with developmental disabilities for jobs, increase funding for mental health crisis beds, increase funding for core mental health service and preserve funding for autism services.

"We were able to take some steps toward returning toward the original numbers," said Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican who chairs an appropriations subcommittee that oversees human services spending.

Lawmakers also added back more than $3 million for educating physicians and other medical professionals, put $2.8 million back into agricultural research and extension, lessened cuts to county health boards by $2.75 million, and gave an additional $1.75 million to public defenders.

House budget writers also restored money for accountability courts that divert people from regular criminal proceedings, rejected cuts to state grants to buy library materials

In many cases, money was restored for the last quarter of the budget year, beginning April 1. England said that in most cases the House intends to keep that money in place in the 2021 budget beginning July 1.