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State budget heavy with spending on education, health care sails through Senate committee

Georgia Senate budget writers put their stamp Monday on Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 state spending plan.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to send the proposed budget to the floor for a vote expected on Tuesday. As was the case when the state House of Representatives approved the budget early this month, the Senate panel heavily tilted spending toward education and health care. The budget would restore $567.5 million in “austerity” cuts to Georgia public schools lawmakers imposed last year when the state’s economy was being hammered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our state finances have out-performed what we expected them to be,” Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, the committee’s chairman, explained. The Senate also supported the House in adding $1 million in grants to charter schools and kicked in another $1 million on its own for grants for computer science instruction. Like the House, the Senate put special emphasis on mental health, adding about $40 million more for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities than Kemp recommended in January. Both the House and Senate want $12.3 million to fund a 5% increase to providers of services to Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities and $7 million for a behavioral crisis center.

The Senate version of the budget would fund pay raises for a number of “critical positions” in state agencies , including the departments of Banking and Finance, Driver Services, Corrections and Juvenile Justice.

The committee also supported Kemp’s recommendations for $10 million to expand the deployment of rural broadband. Another $20 million for that initiative is included in the fiscal 2021 mid-year budget the governor signed last month.

The Senate budget ups the ante on a controversial proposal to hire a “chief labor officer” to help the Georgia Department of Labor catch up with a backlog of unemployment claims arising from the pandemic.

The committee is recommending $198,916 for the position, up from $99,458 in the House budget.

Senate budget writers added a number of new spending items, including $1.5 million to pay for additional ballot security measures required in legislation the Senate passed two weeks ago.

The committee also added $1 million to pay for consultants working with the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics, and put in $700,000 for the Georgia Research Alliance, one of several proposals from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan aimed at boosting Georgia’s bid to become the technology leader of the East Coast.

The Senate also is looking to a nearly $1 billion bond package to fund building projects requested by senators. The committee increased funding for the planned Jack and Ruth Ann Hill Convocation Center at Georgia Southern University – named for the late senator and his wife – from the $32.2 million the House recommended to $36.7 million.

Senate budget writers put in $1 million in bonds to design an academic building on the Cumming campus of the University of North Georgia and recommended funding to build commercial truck driving facilities at Atlanta Technical College, Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Lithonia and Wiregrass Technical College in Douglas. Commercial truck driving is among occupations that have been identified as in short supply in Georgia. The Senate committee’s budget acknowledges the influx of federal funds heading Georgia’s way following congressional passage of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan economic stimulus bill earlier this month. But Tillery cautioned those will be one-time funds. He said Georgia’s revenue situation still remains precarious, as the state Department of Revenue prepares for what promises to be a huge flurry of income tax refunds it will have to issue to unemployed Georgians whose benefits were taxed.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty on the horizon,” he


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