House passes trimmed-down 2010 budget

The Georgia House passed a revised state budget Thursday that slashes spending for the current year by $1.15 billion, in part, by giving most teachers and other state employees more unpaid furlough days.

House members voted 122-44 for the 2010 amended budget, despite protests about some of the spending priorities and funding for education.

“When we cut our teachers and we cut our schools, we shortchange our kids,” said Rep. DuBose Porter of Dublin, the Democratic leader in the House and a candidate for governor.

The House version of the budget cuts state spending to $17.4 billion for the fiscal year that started July 1 and ends June 30, reflecting 14 months of declining revenues and across-the-board cuts in most agencies’ spending of 6 percent to 8 percent.

It calls for teachers and other state employees to take three furlough days by June 30, beyond the three or more that most have already taken.

Across all agencies, furloughs are saving the state $290 million this year, House Appropriations Chair Ben Harbin (R-Evans) told House members.

“We’ve had to make some tough choices in this one, and we have some difficult work in front of us,” Harbin said, referring to the 2011 budget that also has to be adopted this session.

In the revised spending plan, House budget writers protected Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposal to boost funding by $2.2 million for mental health hospitals, a system that is under federal scrutiny.

They balked at making more cuts to basic school funding -- beyond the $281 million already targeted by Perdue. House members also put back $17 million into equalization grants for for low-wealth school districts, money that Perdue had suggested cutting.

Porter said more thought should have been given to ways of restoring even more of the $90 million in equalization grants that were cut. Without more money from the state, some school systems may be forced to raise local property taxes, he said.

Other House members questioned why trims could not be made elsewhere to projects like halls of fame.

“Is it not true this budget is supposed to represent bare bones?” Rep. Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta) asked.

Perdue and House budget writers were at odds over how to fund $33 million in taxpayer-funded grants and scholarships. Perdue wanted to use lottery funds, but lawmakers said that would be unconstitutional.

They also pointed out that for the first time, state lottery revenue will not meet the needs of the HOPE scholarship and pre-k programs. That will require the state to use lottery reserves and could result in cuts to grants to HOPE scholars.

“We are protecting the HOPE,” Harbin said.