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Editorial: State budget thankfully realistic, conservative
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Outside of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

When the lawmakers of the Georgia General Assembly gather for their annual 40 days of deliberations under the gold dome of the state Capitol, topics for discussions can be diverse as the passage of proclamations recognizing local residents of note to determining whether prisoners on death row will live or die.

This year has been no exception. While high profile issues such as abortion and voting machines have garnered much of the public’s attention, lawmakers also have deliberated on dozens of other pieces of state business, some relatively inconsequential, others of great magnitude.

Those we send to the state House and Senate to do the public’s business have great discretion in deciding what is worthy of their time and effort. But one piece of business is mandatory — they must approve a balanced budget for the upcoming state fiscal year.

That task was completed Thursday when final approval was given the 2020 budget and the final $27.5 billion spending proposal forwarded on to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature. Given that the approved budget reflects many of the governor’s own spending priorities and has his blessing, approval is assured.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

The highlight of the state budget for the coming year is a $3,000-per-year salary increase for Georgia teachers and other certified personnel within the public education system. Improving teacher salaries was a cornerstone of Kemp’s campaign for the office of governor, and he followed through with promises made on the campaign trail to win approval for his plan from legislators.

The governor had promised a $5,000 raise to teachers, and said this year’s budget includes a “down payment” on the full amount. The pay increase included in the 2020 budget is one of the largest ever in state history.

The average salary for Georgia teachers is just over $50,000 a year, and based on 2016 numbers, the Economic Policy Institute found the state’s teachers made about 69 percent of what others with similar levels of education in others fields of work are being paid.

No one who goes into teaching does it for the money, but even the noblest of causes has to pay the bills. Kudos to the governor for pushing, and to lawmakers for being pushed. We will be watching for that additional $2,000 a year in future budgets.

The raise for teachers is expected to cost roughly $550 million. House Appropriations Chairman Terry England was quoted as saying nearly 90 percent of all new spending in the 2020 budget goes toward financing the increased salaries for certified personnel.

In addition to teachers, the budget includes a 2 percent pay raise for bus drivers, lunch room workers and school nurses.

Education in general is always a big priority in the state’s spending plan, accounting for more than half of all budget expenditures. The 2020 budget includes millions for universities and technical schools, in addition to the money promised to traditional K-12 education.

But as you can imagine in a spending plan that tops $27 billion, there is much more than just money for schools. The budget also includes a 2 percent merit-based pay increase for employees across all state departments, at a cost of $119 million.

As you would expect in something as sweeping as a state budget, the document addresses spending in hundreds of different areas. Among them, according to the House Budget and Research Office, are items as diverse as:

$55 million for Medicaid growth and $95 million to replace federal funds in Medicaid programs

$13 million for an increase in payment to nursing homes

$73 million for HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships

$2 million to establish an initial budget for the Atlanta Region Transit Link, an effort to govern transit projects in the 13-county metro Atlanta area

$14 million for improved medical and dental care in the state’s prisons

$3 million for the Department of Revenue to facilitate upgrades so it can more efficiently apply tax policy changes

$2 million for an initiative to identify areas of the state in need of improved broadband services.

Of particular interest to local residents is the allocation of $2.95 million approved for addressing existing problems at the Georgia Poultry Lab in Gainesville.

Overall, 55 percent of the state budget goes to education, 22 percent to health and human services, 8 percent to public safety, 8 percent to transportation and economic development, and 7 percent to general government agencies.

“This balanced, conservative budget reflects our values, funds our priorities, puts the safety of our families first, and delivers a well-deserved $3,000 pay raise for Georgia educators,” said Kemp of the first budget passed during his leadership as governor. He went on to praise the “bipartisan” efforts of Democrats and Republicans who came together to pass the proposal by an overwhelming margin.

The 2020 spending plan reflects realistic growth without being overly optimistic about future revenues. Not that many years ago we were in the midst of a recession and cutting state spending wherever it could be cut; remembering those days with a conservative plan for spending is a wise approach.

There are certain words in the governor’s appraisal of the final product that we wish lawmakers in Washington could take to heart. Can you imagine how good it would be to hear the terms “balanced,” “bipartisan” and “conservative” applied to the federal spending process?

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