Georgia Senate gives final approval to budget with raises, bonuses, tax refund

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

About 300,000 state, university and k-12 school employees would receive raises or bonuses and Georgians would get a tax refund under a midyear state spending plan that won final approval from the Georgia Senate on Friday.

The $30.2 billion spending plan, which adds $3 billion in expenditures from the original budget, passed for the fiscal year that ends June 30. It now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.

The House approved the budget deal between the two chambers on Wednesday, and the Senate backed it 52-0 on Friday.

Much of the midyear spending plan follows the proposals Kemp made in January.

It includes $1.6 billion for state income tax refunds that Kemp proposed earlier this year after the government ran a surplus in fiscal 2021. A state fiscal note this week suggested the refund program, which would give single tax filers a $250 refund and joint filers $500, would cost closer to $1.1 billion.

Kemp — who is up for reelection this year — was able to request big increases in spending for salaries, education and health care because tax collections are running 16% ahead of last year for the first eight months of fiscal 2022.

Typically, the midyear budget is used to fund rises in school enrollment and increased costs for Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor, disabled and nursing care.

But after ending fiscal 2021 with a $3.7 billion surplus — in part because of massive federal COVID-19 relief funding — and now eight months of continuing revenue growth, Kemp and lawmakers are spending big.

The midyear plan includes more than $500 million to give about 100,000 state and University System of Georgia employees a $5,000 raise. State officials hope raises will help stem the high turnover rate among state workers, many of whom have seen little or no salary boost in recent years.

The agreement makes the raise $7,000 for officers who work in Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice facilities, which have seen high turnover rates for years.

Full-time and part-time k-12 employees — such as teachers and staff — would receive a $2,000 bonus. Teachers are expected to be offered a $2,000 raise in fiscal 2023, allowing Kemp to meet his 2018 campaign promise of giving them a $5,000 increase over the course of his first term.

An additional $119.6 million is being spent to increase the state 401(k) match for employees and prefund a cost-of-living increase for retired state employees, the first in more than a decade.

The spending plan includes about $390 million to restore spending cuts to k-12 schools that lawmakers approved in 2020, when reductions were made in anticipation that the COVID-19 pandemic would bring a severe recession. Other agencies also will see the money cut during the 2020 session restored to their budgets.

The midyear plan includes big increases for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled and nursing homes, which were hit hard by the pandemic.

The proposal calls for $432 million to get a start on a plan to buy a private prison and build a new one. The idea is the new bed space would replace more run-down and dangerous facilities.

The midyear spending plan includes $112.6 million to buy and develop the land for Rivian’s new electric-vehicle manufacturing plant east of Atlanta.

The state House on Friday also passed a budget for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1, that provides further raises to staffers in areas where the state is either having trouble filling jobs or keeping workers in them, including corrections, law enforcement, mental health and public health programs.

Private prison operators also would receive an extra $12.7 million to give their corrections officers raises under the plan, even though they are not state employees.

The proposal for the coming year calls 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 plan for the coming year adds big money for the chamber leadership’s priorities: improving mental health care, adding more facilities such as hospital and crisis beds, plus staffers; increasing access; aiding crime fighting; and enhancing schools and public health care programs.

The spending proposal also puts money into increasing college programs to up the number of nurses in Georgia. It adds more than 60 positions to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a priority of House Speaker David Ralston and many others in the Georgia State Patrol.