Georgia lawmakers agree on pay raises in upcoming budget, but must resolve differences by Thursday

Georgia lawmakers are agreeing on pay raises for public school teachers and state employees, although they still have differences to work out in the upcoming budget
FILE - Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) speaks in the Senate chamber at the State Capitol on March 31, 2021, in Atlanta. Tillery says a Senate budget approved on Tuesday, March 26, 2024 will include pay raises for teachers and state government employees. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, file)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

FILE - Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) speaks in the Senate chamber at the State Capitol on March 31, 2021, in Atlanta. Tillery says a Senate budget approved on Tuesday, March 26, 2024 will include pay raises for teachers and state government employees. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, file)

ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Senate on Tuesday approved a budget that would include pay raises for public school teachers and state employees, as well as boost spending on education, health care and mental health.

Senators and representatives now must work out their differences on House Bill 916 before 2024's legislative session ends Thursday. The budget, which passed 53-1, spends $36.1 billion in state money and $61 billion overall in the year beginning July 1.

Spending would fall from this year's budget after Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers supplemented that budget will billions in one-time cash, boosting state spending to $38 billion in the year ending June 30.

Public school teachers would get a $2,500 raise starting July 1, boosting average teacher pay in Georgia above $65,000 annually, as the Republican governor proposed in January. That is in addition to a $1,000 bonus Kemp sent out in December. Prekindergarten teachers would also get a $2,500 raise.

State and university employees also would get a 4% pay increase, up to $70,000 in salary. The typical state employee makes $50,400.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, said those pay raises are among “big things we agree on.”

Some employees would get more. State law enforcement officers would get an additional $3,000 bump, atop the $6,000 special boost they got last year. Child welfare workers would also receive extra $3,000 raises.

One thing that is unclear under the plan is judicial pay raises. There is money in the Senate budget for nearly $20 million, which would implement almost all of a plan to raise and standardize judicial pay. But Tillery wants the plan to be contained in a state constitutional amendment that hasn't advanced. The House is still trying to implement the plan in a regular bill.

The state would spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to increase what it pays to nursing homes, home health care providers, dialysis providers, physical and occupational therapists, and some physicians.

The Senate proposes spending $30 million more on domestic violence shelters and sexual assault response. Tillery said that money would offset big cuts in federal funding that some agencies face.

While the House and Senate have agreed on some things, there are also significant differences. The Senate would spend $80 million more to increase pay for companies that provide home-based services to people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

The Senate would also raise the amount that local school boards have to pay for health insurance for non-certified employees such as custodians, cafeteria workers and secretaries. Tillery argues it is fair to speed up the phase-in of higher premiums because of other money the state is pumping into education, including boosting by $205 million the state's share of buying and operating school buses and $104 million for school security. The Senate would add another $5 million for school security for developing school safety plans.

Tillery said one key element in final talks will be a push from Kemp's administration to not spend so much additional money on continuing programs, instead focusing more on one-time spending. That could, for example, endanger some of the rate increases House and Senate members have proposed for medical and social service providers.

The state already plans to pay cash for new buildings and equipment in the upcoming budget, instead of borrowing as normal, reflecting billions in surplus cash Georgia has built up in recent years. The Senate would go farther, taking $33 million the House planned to spend elsewhere and use it instead to pay down debt, which Tillery said would free up spending in future years.

“Let’s find the bonds where the interest rates are higher than we’re making in our banks and let’s go ahead and pay them off early," Tillery told senators.