Education benefits in Deal’s $21.8 billion budget proposal

Gov. Nathan Deal released a state spending plan Friday that would put most of the new money into education, helping to fill in budget holes left from the Great Recession and offering school districts the chance to give raises and eliminate teacher furloughs.

If it is approved by the General Assembly, Deal will in two years have more than sliced in half the austerity spending cuts annually built into the Department of Education’s budget for more than a decade.

The state’s budget would run nearly $21.8 billion for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1. Including federal money, the state would spend about $44 billion. Those figures do not include any new money lawmakers are hoping to drum up for transportation projects. Even without any new transportation money, state spending would increase about $950 million.

Members of the state House and Senate will begin hearings on the governor’s proposal Tuesday. They are expected to pass the final version of the budget by late March or early April.

Deal’s proposal includes about $50 million for agencies to hand out raises to state employees. That’s about a 1 percent increase in the payroll, but agency heads would determine who gets what. School districts would receive $280 million to spend on raises, reducing teacher furloughs, adding back class days cut during the recession, or some combination of the three.

The proposal would increase Department of Education funding by nearly 7 percent and austerity cuts to basic education spending — a constant in the state budget since the early 2000s — would be reduced to their lowest level since 2008.

It also includes about $70 million for what state officials say are the increased costs to Medicaid — the state health care program for the poor and disabled — brought on by the federal Affordable Care Act. And it nearly doubles funding for the state ethics commission, adding eight positions to the troubled agency.

The spending plan includes about $800 million in new construction projects, mostly for k-12 schools and colleges. The state would borrow $23 million for parking facilities near the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.

Lawmakers added $17 million to the budget at the end of the 2014 session to expand parking for Falcons fans. Officials had long promised that the state wouldn’t have to chip in for the $1.4 billion stadium. World Congress Center officials didn’t formally ask for the money until the final days of the session, so it saw virtually no debate among lawmakers, most of whom didn’t find out about it until after the final budget deal had already been struck.

The $23 million would go toward finishing the project.

The governor’s budget proposal provides little new money for transportation projects. That, however, can be added later if lawmakers come up with new transportation funding, as they are talking about doing.

Deal included $35.4 million in the fiscal 2016 budget to improve the state’s much-criticized child welfare system, including the cost of adding more caseworkers. He included $12 million for programs designed to increase educational opportunities for prison inmates.

The governor proposed more than $4.8 million in the midyear budget for medical marijuana trials at Georgia Regents University. Two sets of trials began in late December: one at Children’s Hospital of Georgia featuring two patients and 50 patients at the second trial at Regents. The trials are exploring the use of cannabis oil to treat certain seizure disorders.

Deal’s efforts to remake Capitol Hill would also continue in next year’s budget. With Liberty Plaza across from the statehouse and several other projects completed, the governor included $6.5 million in the budget to demolish the archives building on Capitol Avenue just off I-20. The building hasn’t been used as an archives for several years, and state officials want to tear it down and build a new courts building on the location.

HOPE scholarhsip awards would go up 3 percent next year, largely to make up for college tuition increases, and a program to provide students low-income loans would receive a 30 percent boost under Deal’s budget proposal.

State spending helps educate about 2 million students and provide health and nursing care for more than 1.8 million Georgians. The state funds road improvements and prisons, economic development initiatives and cancer research, business and environmental regulation, parks and water projects. It creates thousands of private-sector jobs through construction projects.

State officials began cutting back in the late 2000s when the recession hit, with some agencies seeing budgets shrink 30 percent to 40 percent. While Deal tried to somewhat shield education, k-12 schools took $1 billion in austerity cuts some years, forcing local school boards to raise property taxes, furlough and lay off teachers, and shorten the school year.