Georgia governor proposes record budget

Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a record $23.7 billion spending plan Thursday that suggests that the after-effects of the Great Recession are now firmly behind state government.

Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, told reporters that under Deal’s budget plan, the state would spend — on a per-capita basis — about what it did in 1998.

But Georgia’s population, and the state budget, has grown tremendously since then. And Deal’s proposal — with decent pay raises for teachers and about $1.6 billion worth of road, school and other construction projects — more closely resembles what state budgets used to look like before the recession.

Including federal money and other revenue, the state would spend $47.5 billion in fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. A decade ago it was closer to $35 billion.

“My team and I have worked diligently with our state agencies to produce meaningful recommendations that will resonate in the lives of Georgians,” Deal said. “This includes investing in education, prioritizing our transportation needs and continuing to spur economic growth.”

State lawmakers will hold initial hearings on the governor’s recommendations next week.

The state budget helps fund the education of more than 2 million students and provides health and nursing care for about 2 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.

When the recession hit, lawmakers began slashing state spending, and nowhere were those reductions more politically painful than in k-12 education.

But in a sign of improving fiscal times, Deal has been putting money back into the formula used to determine how much money schools receive from the state. At one time, the “austerity cuts” reached $1 billion. Teresa MacCartney, the governor’s budget chief, said the shortfall will be reduced to $166 million next year.

Deal on Wednesday announced plans to give 200,000 teachers and state employees 3 percent raises, the largest state-funded increases since before the recession.

Employees in four areas — prisons, juvenile justice, behavioral health and public health — could see raises of up to 10 percent in hopes of reducing chronically high turnover rates.

Several of the governor’s priorities would see boosts in spending in the midyear and fiscal 2017 budgets. His plan includes more money to beef up education programs for inmates and make it easier for them to transition into jobs when they are released.

There’s more money for a highly touted program to allow high school students to take college courses if they are ready for higher education. There is millions more for reservoirs and to help schools get broadband Internet service. There’s money for the expansion of the Georgia Supreme Court that the governor has proposed.

There is $48.3 million in new borrowing to start moving and rebuilding Lanier Technical College in the governor’s home county — Hall. Deal won support in 2015 for a last-minute $10 million addition to the budget to buy land for the move. By the time the project is completed, the school’s president said the move could cost state taxpayers $100 million.

The governor also included $6.5 million in his plan to continue designing a new state courthouse and preparing the land for the facility. If the General Assembly approves the construction money in coming years, the courthouse would be built on the site of the old State Archives Building near the Capitol.

Deal’s budget proposal includes $100 million in borrowing for bridge work across the state, and more than $800 million in other transportation spending, most of it paid for by the package of tax increases lawmakers approved last session.

Deal is proposing millions for more state troopers, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and child welfare caseworkers.

When governors release budget recommendations, many lawmakers typically turn first to the list of proposed bond projects. That’s because the millions spent building and equipping school buildings, or updating government services, or buying new state vehicles, often means jobs for their districts.

Deal’s proposal for the upcoming year would borrow about $513 million for school and college construction alone.

Besides the Lanier Tech project, the state would borrow $47.4 million to renovate the Price Gilbert Library and Crosland Tower complex at Georgia Tech, $19 million for a biology building at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, $234 million for k-12 school buildings statewide, $12 million to update lab equipment on technical college campuses and $16 million to design and build the second phase of an industrial training and technology building at Southern Crescent Technical College in McDonough.

The state would spend $13.7 million to renovate Metro State Prison in Atlanta to better help prepare inmates to return to society, plus $3.5 million on an amphitheater expansion project at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.

Lawmakers will have a few months to get a handle on the numbers and put their mark on Deal’s recommendations. Legislators typically add some of their own favorite projects to budgets and cut a few of the governor’s, but they must approve a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year before they end the session.

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