By Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn)

The Georgia General Assembly last Wednesday adopted the General Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2018.

We are taking care of things we have not been able to do for many years — helping Georgians of all ages who are suffering as well as those who have dedicated their lives to serving us as a state.

It feels good to know we did all we did while holding spending at the same level per capita, when adjusted for inflation, that the State spent in the late 1990s.

During the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1, we expect to collect $1.9 billion more revenue than in the current fiscal year. We have devoted 62 cents of every dollar of that to education, 15 cents to transportation, 10 cents to public safety, 10 cents to health and human services, and 3 cents to economic development and general government operations.

Here are some of the ways we are investing the additional funds:

EDUCATION

Last year, the General Assembly appropriated enough money for 3-percent teacher raises, but some school boards did not pass along those raises. So this time, we are raising the teacher pay scale by 2 percent. We also are giving 2-percent raises to other school employees.

The appropriations bill includes about $1 million to improve academic achievement in the state’s lowest performing schools.

And we will spend an additional $38.9 million in lottery funds to increase HOPE scholarships by 3 percent and an additional $10.9 million for the Zell Miller Scholarship program. We also have included another $21 million for the Move on When Ready program to cover costs for high school students dually enrolled in college courses.

HUMAN RESOURCES

A major focus of HB 44 is to strengthen the foster care system. We are raising by 19 percent the salaries of case workers and managers due to extremely high turnover rates, and we are increasing payments to foster care parents and to extended family members fostering children. The bill also will fund 80 additional positions for foster care support services and 25 employees to recruit more case workers.

In addition, HB 44 will provide $4.1 million to the Georgia Alzheimer’s Project to promote early detection and treatment of that horrible disease that recently touched my own family. And we are including enough money for the Department of Veterans Services to hire four benefits training officers and one coordinator to work specifically with female veterans.

HEALTH CARE

HB 44 includes additional money for nursing homes and higher reimbursement rates for primary care and OB/GYN services to Medicaid patients as well as for dental services for children covered by Medicaid.

We also have appropriated $20.7 million for behavioral health services for autistic children under the age of 21, and we are funding 97 new residency slots in primary care medicine and 20 OB/GYN residency slots at the state’s medical schools.

The bill expands the loan repayment programs for physician assistants, advanced practice registered nurses and dentists practicing in rural and underserved areas. It also provides the resources to pay an additional $500 for each newborn delivery in rural counties. And we have appropriated $1 million in start-up grants for four Federally Qualified Health Centers in Cook, Lincoln, Seminole and Lowndes counties.

HB 44 also includes funding for the creation of a new Office of Cardiac Care and the cardiac registry authorized by HB 102, which passed earlier in this session.

PUBLIC SAFETY

In the area of public safety, HB 44 annualizes the 20-percent raises that began in January for state law enforcement officers. The bill includes money for additional public safety training, for the expansion of accountability courts, and for the creation of a new forensic pathology fellowship program and the hiring of DNA scientists to reduce the backlog of sexual assault and rape kits.

TRANSPORTATION

HB 44 includes $162.5 million in new funds for transportation. This will bring the total funding for transportation to $2 billion in FY2018.

The Georgia Department of Transportation will use its additional $125 million for capital construction and maintenance to fund 306 planned projects that include bridges, roadways, intersections, signal maintenance, safety improvements, and resurfacing and maintenance.

HB 44 also provides $14.3 million more to local governments for Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants. And it will invest $24.1 million into the Coordinated Highway Assistance and Maintenance Program that provides patrols of rural interstates for motorists in distress.

BOND PACKAGE

The bond package for FY2018 is $1.16 billion. It will provide capital funding for education, public safety and transportation projects while still maintaining a debt-service ratio well below our constitutional limit.

The biggest single use of the bond proceeds will be $662.7 million to build, repair or expand public schools, colleges and libraries.

About 11 percent of the bond proceeds will be for public safety projects, including a new Savannah Crime Lab.

Another 9 percent will be devoted to transportation projects including the state’s bridges, rail facilities and for a new Xpress Bus Park and Ride lot in Gwinnett County.

The remaining $262.2 million will be spent on health, general government and economic development projects including the expansion of the Georgia World Congress Center and a new judicial complex downtown.

The state government’s budget process is not something that happens over the 40 days of a legislative session. Gov. Deal has been great to work with over the past seven years that I have been Appropriations chair in the House. And my counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville), has taught me a lot over the years.

We have learned that when you go into budget negotiations with the right intentions and the right heart, then the right things happen.

Now that our legislative colleagues have approved HB 44, we are awaiting the Governor’s signature.