General Assembly approves spending plan with more money for schools, health care

Georgia House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, praised the deal budget writers in his chamber and the state Senate reached on a $27.2 billion budget for fiscal 2022. “I think we’ve got an incredible budget in front of us that addresses a lot of issues for a lot of folks,” England said. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
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Georgia House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, praised the deal budget writers in his chamber and the state Senate reached on a $27.2 billion budget for fiscal 2022. “I think we’ve got an incredible budget in front of us that addresses a lot of issues for a lot of folks,” England said. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

The Georgia House and Senate on Wednesday agreed to a $27.2 billion budget for the coming fiscal year that would include extra money for schools, health care and road building, along with about $1 billion worth of other construction projects.

Under state law, legislators had to approve a budget before the end of the session. The new budget year begins July 1.

“I think we’ve got an incredible budget in front of us that addresses a lot of issues for a lot of folks,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said the spending plan would include pay raises for many in law enforcement and workers who have “been on the front lines” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The measure broadly follows Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget proposal by backfilling spending cuts that lawmakers made in 2020 due to the pandemic.

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The General Assembly in June cut the budget by 10% because it feared tax collections would plummet. That didn’t happen: Tax collections have improved with Georgia’s economy. The state is also receiving $4.7 billion from the latest federal COVID-19 relief plan, although how that money will be spent will be up to Kemp.

The spending plan includes pay raises in areas where there is high turnover in state government, such as for staffers in the Department of Driver Services and prison and juvenile justice guards. It does not include a pay raise for all rank-and-file employees or teachers.

The House and Senate backed plans to spend $40 million on a rural innovation fund and $10 million to extend high-speed internet in rural areas.

Lawmakers agreed to backfill 60% of the education spending reductions that lawmakers approved last year.

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Tillery noted that Georgia schools are getting about $6 billion from the federal COVID-19 relief bills, more than enough to make up for past state funding cuts. Including the federal relief money, Tillery said, schools will have far more money to spend next year than they did before the COVID-19 spending cuts.

Under the fiscal 2022 budget, the state would borrow about $1 billion for construction projects, much of it going for new schools, college buildings, roads and bridges, and a convention center in Savannah

The plan also calls for more money for nursing homes hit hard by COVID-19 and medical providers. About $60 million more would be allocated for various mental health programs, some of which have been overwhelmed by the impact the pandemic has had on mental health and addiction problems.

The budget would add staff to a number of agencies, including the Department of Community Health, the state ethics commission, the Department of Revenue and the secretary of state’s office.

“This budget has a statewide perspective. It strengthens the safety net for the people who need it the most,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, a member of the House budget negotiating team.

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