Senate panel backs continued insurance for Georgia’s school bus drivers

Senate leaders on Monday backed a $276 million spending increase for the rest of this fiscal year, and they joined House colleagues in voicing support for continued health insurance coverage for part-time school bus drivers.

The two chambers will decide in coming weeks whether to formally reject or support Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to stop state subsidies that allow noncertified school employees, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers, to be part of the State Health Benefit Plan. The plan provides insurance to 650,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their dependents.

While lawmakers have voiced support for bus driver insurance, the state funding issue won’t be decided until lawmakers consider the $21.8 billion budget for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1. Some legislative leaders have raised the possibility that local school districts will be tapped to pick up the cost if they choose to continue providing coverage.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday unanimously approved a spending plan that gets the state through June 30, the end of this fiscal year. The full Senate will vote on it Wednesday.

Senate and House leaders will then negotiate the differences in their versions of the plan before it gets final approval.

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“The House and Senate agree on most items in this budget,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville.

The measure includes $128 million extra for school systems with growing enrollments and $40 million for economic development grants.

It contains $35 million to expand broadband Internet connectivity in local school districts, $5 million to hire 103 additional caseworkers in the Division of Family and Children Services, $4.8 million to begin medical marijuana trials and $515,000 to establish a Georgia Film Academy to train future employees for the state’s growing film industry.

The spending plan also contains the language supporting the idea of providing health coverage to school bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

House leaders initially added that phrasing in response to Deal’s proposal to save $103 million by discontinuing state subsidies for health insurance for about 11,500 part-time school staffers.

The Deal proposal is in the budget for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1. The part-time staffers would lose the insurance as of Jan. 1.

Health insurance is one of several potentially contentious issues facing lawmakers in next year’s $21.8 billion budget, which is one of the reasons legislative leaders wanted to get moving early on the easier-to-digest midyear spending plan.

Before the fiscal 2016 budget is approved, Deal and lawmakers will have to decide how much money to add to pump up transportation spending. House members are currently considering a proposal that could add more than $1 billion a year in transportation funding.

Deal’s office announced Monday that the state is in pretty solid financial shape. The fiscal 2015 budget is predicated on about a 3.6 percent rate of revenue growth. Deal’s office said that through the first seven months of fiscal 2015, tax collections are up 5.2 percent.

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