Georgia House, Senate pass budget for coming year with teacher raises

Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn) announces that he won’t seek reelection while speaking in the Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn) announces that he won’t seek reelection while speaking in the Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Georgia General Assembly agreed Monday on a $30.2 billion state spending plan for the coming year that includes a $2,000 pay raise for teachers and continues attempts to slow state government turnover.

By midday, the Senate had approved the spending plan 53-0 and the House backed it 160-5 around 11 p.m. on the session’s final day.

The budget for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1, builds on the record midyear spending plan that Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law last month.

The midyear budget, which runs through June 30, includes $2,000 bonuses for teachers and school workers, and $5,000 cost-of-living raises for most state and university employees.

The budget for the upcoming year turns the teacher bonus into a raise — meaning it would be built into their future years’ salary — and continue to fund the state employee increases. Some staffers in areas with hard-to-fill jobs, including corrections and mental health agencies, would receive bigger raises.

Private prison operators also would receive more money to give their corrections officers raises under the plan, even though they are not state employees.

The plan includes $25.7 million to allow state employees to withdraw and be compensated for up to 40 hours of accrued leave annually and $119.8 million to increase the state 401(k) match up to 9% and prefund a cost-of-living pension raise for Georgians who retired from state employment, the first such increase in more than a decade.

Lawmakers have pushed for a market study to look at what the government needs to pay to attract and retain employees. Some agencies have annual turnover rates over 25%, in part because of low pay. In the state Juvenile Justice Department, it’s closer to 90%.

The budget calls for spending big money on priority areas: improving mental health care by boosting salaries and staff sizes, increasing access and adding more facilities such as hospital and crisis beds; aiding crime fighting; and enhancing schools and public health care programs.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the spending plan provides the biggest one-year increase in state funding for mental health programs ever. The mental health agency’s budget would see a $183 million increase.

Lawmakers backed Kemp’s proposal to boost state spending on higher education and would eliminate the “institutional fees” that students have been forced to pay since the Great Recession, when the General Assembly slashed college funding.

While the state midyear budget for the fiscal year ending June 30 saw a massive increase — from about $27 billion to $30 billion — the spending plan for the upcoming year would see a more modest rise.

State tax collections are running 16% ahead of last year for the first eight months of fiscal 2022, which is good for budget writers who have to make sure they can afford the midyear budget increase. Gains are expected to slow in the coming year.

The teacher pay raise is particularly important to Kemp, who faces a tough reelection battle this year. Kemp promised during his 2018 campaign that he would give them a $5,000 increase over the course of his first term. He’d previously delivered on $3,000 in 2019, so the new raise would fulfill that promise.

In total, the state would spend about $950 million more on raises for state, k-12 school and university employees.

The new budget includes funding for 10 new SWAT unit troopers in the Georgia State Patrol and a special 10% salary increase for troopers fighting crime in metro Atlanta. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation would get 68 new positions to fight crime and support the criminal justice system through the processing of evidence, including 21 scientists, seven crime lab technicians and 10 new positions in the medical examiner’s office.

The budget also would restore 22 game warden positions in the Department of Natural Resources and provide $10.5 million for state park repairs and renovations.