Senate backs arts funding in passing 2011 budget

In passing the 2011 state budget, the Senate restored nearly $900,000 to the spending plan to continue funding the arts. The Georgia Arts Council had been targeted for elimination under the House’s version of the budget.

In the $17.8 billion budget, senators also tacked on $25 million in bonds for local water and sewer projects that had been cut by the House.

The budget, passed on a 49-2 vote, includes drastic cuts because of lower state revenue and the continued decline in state tax collection. But the cuts could have been worse, as lawmakers fight to come up with ways to fill a nearly $800 million budget shortfall. The bill that was passed includes a combination of fee and tax increases designed to help avoid program cuts.

Part of the bill would raise $96 million in fees. Another key component of the budget is the elimination of a portion of the property taxes that go to the state, which saves property owners money annually. The budget also eliminates all state income taxes on retirement income for residents age 65 and over. Combined, the tax breaks would cost the state $387 million over the five years.

But on Wednesday, Attorney General Thurbert Baker said Republicans in the House and Senate apparently failed to follow state law in approving the $387 million tax break. In a letter to House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin), Baker said Republican leadership “has not strictly adhered to the procedures imposed on itself by statute,” but he remained unsure as to what the courts could do about it.

A conference committee will now be formed to put together the final version of the budget before next week’s session adjournment.

“As we prepared for a session marked with an unprecedented budget shortfall, we made a commitment to cut state spending and produce a budget that would focus on essential services,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said. “The Senate budget cut $2.6 billion in spending, which includes nearly $790 million in new cuts identified by our senators.”