Georgia House leaders back budget with more money for schools, mental health

Georgia House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, left, said the fiscal 2022 budget that is panel approved Thursday includes more than $58.5 million extra for various mental health programs, some of which have been overwhelmed by the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on mental health and addiction problems. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Georgia House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, left, said the fiscal 2022 budget that is panel approved Thursday includes more than $58.5 million extra for various mental health programs, some of which have been overwhelmed by the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on mental health and addiction problems. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Georgia House leaders on Thursday approved a $27 billion state budget for the coming year that continues to backfill spending cuts lawmakers made to areas such as education, mental health care and law enforcement in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spending plan does not include pay raises for most of the state’s more than 200,000 educators and workers, although it offers some in select agencies with high turnover rates.

But the House Appropriations Committee vote on Thursday is just the first legislative step for the fiscal 2022 budget — which goes into effect July 1 — so more changes can be expected before the General Assembly session concludes at the end of March.

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.

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

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

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

That didn’t happen. In fact, state tax collections have increased 6.3% during the first seven months of this fiscal year.

A majority of state spending goes for k-12 schools and higher education.

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.

Besides education, one of the major drivers of the budget increase next year is health care, with Medicaid — the program that covers the poor and disabled — slated for another big increase. That’s in part because recipients who put off medical treatment and appointments during the pandemic are expected to see their doctors more in 2022. The House plan also includes more money for nursing homes hit hard by the pandemic.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the measure puts more than $58.5 million extra into various mental health programs, some of which have been overwhelmed by the impact the pandemic has had on mental health and addiction problems.

“With this, we will make a significant statement as it relates to mental health,” he said.

The budget would add staff to a number of agencies, from the Department of Community Health and the ethics commission to the Department of Revenue and 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.

The spending plan includes $2.5 million for the Georgia World Congress Center to help it bring people back to work as more conventions are held when more Americans are vaccinated.

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.

The House plan includes $190,000 to pay for reviews of at least five special-interest tax breaks next year. A Senate bill passed earlier this session calls for regular reviews of the dozens of special-interest tax breaks lawmakers have approved to see whether they are helping to create jobs.

It also has $6 million to rehab MARTA’s Bankhead station, almost $3 million to design a research tower at Georgia State University and $500,000 to create an eminent scholar for sickle cell research at the Georgia Research Alliance.

Because the House plan doesn’t fully restore cuts to areas such as education, Danny Kanso, senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute think tank, said it underfunds state agencies by about $1.2 billion “at a time when Georgians, still facing the health and economic challenges of COVID-19, need more funding to support their needs.’

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