Georgia House backs budget with $1 billion in borrowing for construction

03/05/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) speaks during a press conference after the House passed the Georgia Budget, HB 81, on day 27 of the Georgia Legislative Session at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Friday, March 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/05/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) speaks during a press conference after the House passed the Georgia Budget, HB 81, on day 27 of the Georgia Legislative Session at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Friday, March 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Georgia House on Friday approved a $27.2 billion state budget for the coming year that would borrow $1 billion for construction projects and continue to backfill spending cuts that lawmakers made in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fiscal 2022 budget — which goes into effect July 1 — now moves to the Senate for its consideration after passing the House 136-31.

Gov. Brian Kemp last month signed a midyear budget — which runs through June 30 — that included $1,000 bonuses for most state employees and 10% raises for prison and juvenile justice guards.

The House’s fiscal 2022 budget does not include any of the federal money the state will receive if Congress approves the latest COVID-19 relief plan.

Some Democrats voted against the budget plan because it does not expand the Medicaid health care program for low-income and disabled Georgians. Democrats have said expanding Medicaid eligibility could provide 500,000 Georgians with health care using federal funding. Republicans have long opposed such an expansion as being too costly.

“It really makes me question our priorities,” said Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn. “I absolutely cannot reconcile throwing away billions in federal funding that would help all of our constituents have access to health care, that would save our rural hospitals from closing and save, as well as create, jobs, especially when we take federal funds when it is convenient for us.”

The House spending plan agreed with much of what Kemp proposed for the coming year’s budget.

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

House budget writers agreed to backfill 60% of the education spending reductions that lawmakers approved last year, when they cut the budget by 10% because of fears that state revenue would plummet due to the pandemic.

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

The House plan also includes more money for nursing homes hit hard by COVID-19 and $58.5 million extra for various mental health programs, some of which have been overwhelmed by the impact the pandemic has had on mental health and addiction problems.

“This is an issue that touches every Georgia family,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “Part of our work is to remove the stigma from seeking help for behavior health or developmental disability services. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is nothing to hide from.”

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. It would provide pay raises for bank examiners, employees at driver’s license service centers and guards at private prisons. It would create new classifications for veterans in the Georgia State Patrol so they can get raises as they stay on the job.

And the House asked the Employees Retirement System — the pension plan for state workers — to send pensioners an extra monthly check. While retired teachers get a 3% cost-of-living increase every year, ERS members haven’t had one in more than a decade. Instead, in recent years, lawmakers have urged the system to give retirees a bonus check, which doesn’t permanently increase their pension.

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