House set to pass record budget with teacher pay raises

The Georgia House is set Friday to approve a record $23.7 billion state budget for the upcoming year that includes money for what could be the largest pay raise 200,000 teachers and state employees have seen since the Great Recession.

The House’s budget committee approved the plan Thursday, following much of what Gov. Nathan Deal recommended in January but adding several construction projects to an already huge bond package and funding increases for doctors and nursing homes that handle Georgians on the government’s health care program.

Deal on Wednesday signed a record midyear budget into law that runs through June 30. The House is expected to easily approve the spending blueprint for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. The measure will then move to the Senate for that chamber’s rewrite and consideration.

The budget includes 3 percent more in payroll for state agencies and school districts to provide pay raises for state employees, teachers and school staffers. It also includes money for a one-time bonus for state retirees and a cost-of-living adjustment in the pensions of noncertified school personnel such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

“Things are getting better, the economy is improving, so that allows us to catch up on some things that we’ve fallen behind on,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn.

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

Officials say on a per-capita basis, the state is spending about what it did in 1998. But an improving economy and gas and hotel tax increases approved by lawmakers during the 2015 session have provided the state with a revenue windfall.

That is seen not only in the pay raises — which have been few and far between over the past six or so years — but in the $1.6 billion worth of road, school and other construction projects in next year’s proposed spending plan.

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 cutting state spending, and nowhere were those reductions more politically painful than in k-12 education.

Several of the governor’s priorities would see boosts. 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.

The proposal includes $48.3 million in new borrowing to start moving and rebuilding Lanier Technical College in the governor’s home county of 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 House included the governor’s recommendation to spend $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.

While state employees and teachers could get raises, the House also added $37.5 million in state spending — $116.5 million when federal funding is included — to increase payments to nursing homes and many doctors who treat Medicaid patients.

Supporters said those companies and doctors have not seen rates keep up with the increasing cost of providing services, although Deal and lawmakers gave select nursing home owners a controversial $27 million boost last year.

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