Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

Georgia Senate budget: money for local police, not for state retirees

State Senate leaders released the chamber’s proposed $26 billion state budget for the upcoming fiscal year Wednesday, nudging lawmakers closer to ending the 2018 legislative session but also setting up some potentially interesting backroom negotiating with colleagues from the Georgia House.

The House and Senate will have to come to an agreement by March 29 on a spending plan for fiscal 2019, which begins July 1.

The House, which passed its version of the budget a few weeks ago, and the Senate both pour much of the projected $1 billion in new state spending into familiar areas: schools, public health programs and construction projects.

In the spending plans of both chambers about one-third of new state spending — $361 million — would go to improve the financial stability of Georgia’s teacher pension system.

Neither proposal includes pay raises for 200,000 teachers and state employees, but both spend big money in programs aimed at improving the economy of rural Georgia.

“We believe we are using the state budget to address many of the needs of this state,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said just before his committee approved the chamber’s version of the budget Wednesday.

However, there will be plenty of room for negotiations with the House. The Senate, as expected, trimmed and added money to various proposals to aid rural Georgia, an area near and dear to small-town lawmakers in both chambers.

The Senate rejected the House’s proposal to give retirees from state government employment a one-time bonus of up to $900. The House added that to the budget because state retirees haven’t had a cost-of-living increase in their pensions in several years, and similar bonuses have been backed by the Senate in previous years.

But Senate leaders didn’t go along with it this time because teachers and state employees weren’t receiving raises.

The Senate also added $3 million to provide grants to counties and cities to boost local police pay. Local law enforcement officials have complained about pay inequities since 2016, when Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a 20 percent salary boost for state troopers and law enforcement.

Lawmakers in 2017 approved the increase, designed to keep the state from losing troopers to other law enforcement agencies that pay more. However, county and city law enforcement officials immediately began raising the alarm that they too needed to boost pay.

While the state funds its troopers, the salaries of city and county law enforcement are paid by city councils and county commissions.

But Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s president, is a leading candidate for governor this year and has made boosting local law enforcement salaries a priority. The Deal administration sees it as the responsibility of local governments.

The Senate spending plan includes $10 million for grants to improve school safety after last month’s campus massacre in Florida. House leaders had put in $8 million and were hoping the Senate would add another $8 million.

The Senate also added money in several areas to deal with the opioid-abuse crisis in Georgia, including funding for a statewide drug task force.

It doubled the House’s contribution to two construction projects favored by both chambers as well, putting $6.3 million into expanding Savannah’s convention center and $12.5 million to fund construction and renovation of the Stone Mountain Inn and Evergreen Conference Center and Resort.

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