Senate expected to vote on fiscal ‘14 budget Friday


Senate expected to vote on fiscal ‘14 budget Friday

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John Spink
Construction workers move into place equipment on the rising BABS-002 parking deck adjacent to the Department of Transportation building on Capitol Avenue near Capitol Square in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013. The new parking lot will be 9-stories tall and just under 500-thousand square feet according to project manager, Matt Widmaier of Manhattan Construction Company, the general contractor. There will be two helicopter pads and the building will have an exterior of Georgia marble. The parking deck will be for state workers and legislators and is scheduled for completion in October of 2013.

The Senate is set to vote on a $19.8 billion budget for the upcoming year that restores proposed cuts to Georgia Gwinnett College and puts state money into start-up companies.

It also increases funding for so-called charter school systems, a pet project of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s president. And it includes $474 million in “equalization” funding for poor school districts. Under the state’s formula, $137 million of the equalization money will go to Gwinnett, Paulding and Clayton County systems.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the plan Thursday, and the full Senate will vote on it Friday. The House passed its version of the budget for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, earlier this month.

House and Senate leaders will begin negotiating a final plan. The 2013 session is expected to end next week.

The Senate plan follows much of what was recommended by Gov. Nathan Deal and approved by the House. It fills a $224 million hole in Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled. It puts $147 million more into K-12 education to pay for growth in student enrollment.

The committee endorsed Deal’s recommendation to add $38 million in equalization funding, which is designed to help “low-wealth” systems. The $474 million program sends extra money to about 130 school districts, mostly rural. The largest single beneficiary, however, is Gwinnett County, the state’s largest district, which will see a 51 percent increase in equalization funding next year.

While it increases funding in some areas, the Senate plan also cuts agency budgets about $200 million because state tax collections still lag behind what they were before the start of the Great Recession. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said state collections today are about where they were in 2005.

Hill said a few growing areas of state spending are “soaking up all the new revenue we have.”

The Senate found room, however, for some of its priorities.

The budget proposal adds $10 million to help start a venture capital program. Cagle has promoted it as a way to help startup companies and create jobs.

It restored $8.25 million the House had proposed cutting out of a special subsidy for fast-growing Georgia Gwinnett College. The school has been getting about $16 million extra for several years as startup money. Deal and House members want to start scaling the extra funding back. But Gwinnett senators have long opposed such cuts. The county delegation includes Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, and Appropriations Vice Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford. Under the Senate proposal, Georgia Gwinnett would receive the full $16 million for another year.

The Senate agreed to begin phasing out the extra funding over a seven-year period, starting in 2015. Under that plan, the school will have been collecting start-up subsidies for about 15 years by the time they end.

Senators proposed increasing grants to charter school systems, which have more leeway to waive many state-mandated education policies, by $7 million. Cagle has been a leading advocate of charter systems.

The Senate budget also added back money the House had proposed cutting from a state grant paid to all private college students. The subsidy program has been around for about 40 years and is meant to help private college students pay tuition. The Senate also softened proposed cuts in the state’s technical college system.

In addition, the Senate reduced the increase House members added to the budget for foster parents. Foster parents caring for children of relatives currently get $11.67 a day from the state to care for babies. The House increased that to $12.02. The Senate added only 18 cents per day. Officials said such foster parents have not seen an increase in 10 years.

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