Sen. Vincent Fort argues against funding for a new parking deck for the GWCC. Fort argued the parking deck was made necessary by the new Atlanta Falcons stadium project and that the money should be spent on education rather than a private business. Tuesday March 18, 2014.
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Budget passes, with a last-minute surprise

With primaries two months away, the House and Senate gave final approval Tuesday to an election-friendly budget that gives a little something to pretty much everyone.

Including, at the last minute, the Atlanta Falcons.

The spending plan for fiscal 2015 — which begins July 1 — pours more than $300 million extra into schools to eliminate furloughs, lengthen the school year and, if there’s money left over, give teachers pay raises. Some state employees will also get merit raises.

The budget pumps more than $800 million into construction projects, with the bulk of the money going to new schools, college buildings, libraries and the Savannah harbor deepening project.

It provides extra scholarship money to technical college students with top grades, more for health care programs for teachers and state employees and more for efforts to detect and diagnose autism in children. More goes to programs for seniors who get meals delivered to them, and more is spent helping marketing Georgia farm products.

And on the 39th day of the 40-day session, lawmakers agreed to set aside $17 million requested by the World Congress Center for parking for the new Falcons stadium. Another $14.5 million is included for equipment to help beef up the state’s response following this winter’s ice and snow storms.

“We did a lot of things that will get good headlines this year and everybody is trying to pass a good election-year budget,” said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, a former House budget chairman. “It’s a good thing we have elections every two years so budgets are great every two years.”

House and Senate leaders reached an accord on the $20.8 billion budget Monday night. On Tuesday, the House passed it 172-2 with no debate and the Senate followed 51-5 over some objections by Democrats. The budget, which increases spending $800 million overall, now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his consideration.

Its passage clears a major hurdle for lawmakers to finish the 2014 session on Thursday, giving lawmakers 60 days to campaign in advance of the May 20 primary elections.

The state budget touches the lives of millions of Georgians. It provides education for about 2 million students and health and nursing care for almost 1.8 million people. It funds road improvements and prisons, economic development and cancer research, business regulation and water and sewer projects.

Much of what lawmakers approved was proposed in January by the governor, who is running for re-election. Education typically benefits when governors are up for re-election, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, and his House counterpart, Rep. Terry England, D-Auburn, both pointed out that most of the state’s extra money is targeted to schools.

In fact, England said, the increase in direct school aid and construction borrowing may be the largest in state history.

Under Deal’s direction, both chambers also added money to the health care plan for 650,000 teachers, state employees and retirees to eliminate some of the problems the state created when it changed their coverage starting Jan. 1. Plan members have called it a Bandaid. The chambers also backed language calling on plan members to get more choices in their health care next year.

Hill defended the Senate’s decision to give extra money to the Senate Budget Office and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s office so they can provide bigger raises to their employees than most state workers will receive. He said the state is only able to keep budget analysts, on average, six months before they are snapped up by other agencies or businesses.

Harbin has been especially critical of the raises, calling it bad policy and bad politics at a time when many state workers haven’t gotten cost-of-living increases since the start of the Great Recession.

“Teachers, corrections officers, forestry department folks, have been trying to get raises,” Harbin said. “We’ve got paraprofessionals in schools who qualify for food stamps, who qualify for Medicaid. We ought to be looking after these folks before we look after political appointees.”

Budget deals always have a few controversial last-minute additions, and the one that caught lawmakers most by surprise was the $17 million that will be used to expand a parking deck for Falcons fans. World Congress Center officials sent legislative leaders a letter March 10, after the House and Senate had already passed their versions of the budget, about the deck. Payments on the bonds over 20 years would top $30 million.

The city of Atlanta plans to generate about $246 million from the sale of bonds to help pay for the stadium’s construction, as well as the costs of issuing the bonds, setting up a debt service reserve fund and putting aside money for interest payments during construction. The bonds will be repaid with proceeds from the city’s hotel-motel tax.

Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said lawmakers were promised the past few years that they wouldn’t have to chip in.

“I guess the political downside of providing largess to the Falcons has subsided, it’s gone away,” Fort said. “After 10 years of cutting education … to do $17 million for the Falcons reflects better than anything just how perverse we have become. It is reflection of how misguided our budget process has become.”

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