The Georgia General Assembly passed a $49 billion budget Wednesday. House Speaker David Ralston said it’s possibly the earliest point in the legislative session lawmakers have agreed on a budget.
Under the plan, teachers would get a 2 percent raise; state workers who handle child welfare cases would see a 19 percent pay increase; and state law enforcement would receive a 20 percent salary boost.
The budget also puts more money toward public schools, economic development, the HOPE scholarship, and transportation projects.
A state budget is the only piece of legislation that lawmakers are constitutionally required to approve each year and discussions often linger into the session’s final days. The budget covers every state service from health care programs serving low-income residents or those with disabilities to the state employees who woo companies considering an expansion or relocation to Georgia.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the plan tries to address a shortage of health care workers in some areas.
“This budget seeks to begin the hard work now by expanding the loan repayment program for physician assistants, advance practice registered nurses, and dentists practicing in rural and underserved areas,” England told members of the Georgia House.
The budget includes more than $1 billion in borrowing for construction projects around the state. The package includes nearly $161 million for local schools, $73 million to complete the move of Lanier Technical College in Deal’s home base of Hall County and $36 million for a new crime lab in Savannah.
Lawmakers also included $105 million to finance construction of a new judicial complex in downtown Atlanta, at the former site of the Georgia Archives building which was imploded recently to make way. The new home to Georgia’s Supreme Court and other offices is estimated to cost more than $110 million by completion.
The budget process has largely been drama-free in Georgia during the past two years as the state’s finances recovered from the Great Recession. In January, the state reported that tax collections had increased 4.6 percent compared to the previous year. February’s figures were less encouraging: Collections fell 5.6 percent compared to the same month in 2016. State officials blamed the drop on corporate and individual income tax refunds.
The General Assembly easily met the deadline to pass a budget this year; they don’t plan to adjourn until March 30. England and Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, chair their respective chambers’ budget-writing committees and said disagreements came down to less than 2 percent of the total spending.
“The winners in this are the citizens of this state,” England said.
Lawmakers largely agreed with the budget proposal Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled in January but made tweaks for their own priorities and some additional construction projects.
The proposal includes about $850,000 to let the GBI hire staff and buy supplies intended to fix a backlog of evidence kits from cases of sexual assault. Lawmakers last year approved a bill requiring law enforcement to pick up the evidence kits from hospitals within 96 hours and submit to the state for testing within 30 days.
The additions also include $485,000 to start providing video streaming of Senate committee meetings. The House began live-streaming video of its committee meetings in 2006, allowing the public to view the hearings without traveling to the Capitol in Atlanta.
Committee meetings are where the bulk of lawmakers’ public discussion on items takes place. Several senators began using smartphones to provide live video of Senate meetings this year, highlighting the chambers’ differing approaches.
At Deal’s request, House and Senate leaders negotiating final details of the proposal added about $2 million to purchase insurance against cyber-attacks or data breaches for various state agencies.
Georgia’s budget includes about $25 billion from state sources, particularly income taxes; the rest is largely provided by the federal government.
The budget now goes to Deal, who has the authority to veto specific items if he chooses.