Georgia House, Senate pass new budget with $2,000-$6,000 raises

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

The Georgia House and Senate on Wednesday agreed on a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year that would give state law enforcement officers $4,000-$6,000 raises while teachers and other state and university employees would receive a $2,000 salary boost.

The $32.4 billion budget, which was approved by the Senate 54-1 and the House 170-3 on the 40th and final day of the 2023 legislative session, was the one measure state lawmakers had to pass before adjourning Wednesday night. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

While the measure includes big raises and boosts to law enforcement, school and mental health funding, Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said it was written with the knowledge that the state could face an economic slowdown later this year.

There’s a chance not everything lawmakers approved will get by Gov. Brian Kemp’s veto pen. Kemp told lawmakers late Wednesday that there were “significant holes” in the budget in an uncertain economy.

Lawmakers cut $66 million from the University System of Georgia’s budget. The cut is a little more than half the amount Kemp and lawmakers recently approved for a new electronic medical records system for the Medical College of Georgia, part of Augusta University.

Wellstar Health System is negotiating a partnership with AU Health System and could possibly take it over. Senate leaders have raised questions about the cost of the medical records system. Wellstar has also been a vocal critic of the Senate’s push to make it easier to build new hospitals in Georgia.

Tillery said the University System had more than $500 million in “carry forward” funds at the end of fiscal 2022 that it can use to make up for the spending cut.

Georgia Public Broadcasting would also take a hit, although not the 26% originally proposed by the Senate. The final deal cut GPB by about 10% — $1.4 million — from what Kemp originally proposed. Tillery said other stations have complained for years about GPB being the only broadcaster funded by the state.

The Senate increased the pay raise for many law enforcement staffers — such as troopers — from the $2,000 Kemp proposed and $4,000 the House proposed to $6,000. Some others in law enforcement working in prisons and juvenile justice facilities would get $4,000 raises.

Tillery said the raises are aimed at retaining experienced law enforcement officers, given the expensive cost of trooper schools to replace those who leave.

Teachers and state employees would see a $2,000 boost.

House Appropriations Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, who called the budget an “aspirational document,” said the raises would bring the average teacher salary to $61,000 a year, the highest in the Southeast.

He noted the budget also includes $1,000 bonuses for school custodians and millions to fund meals for tens of thousands of schoolchildren eligible for reduced-price meals.

Overall, the state will spend a record $13.1 billion on K-12 schools next fiscal year.

Both the House and Senate backed spending $1.25 million to open a Georgia State Patrol satellite post in Buckhead that would house up to 20 troopers from the motor unit and Nighthawks DUI Task Force.

The House proposed the expenditure on the heels of a two-year effort by disgruntled residents in the wealthy north Atlanta neighborhood to secede from the city. Secession supporters cited frustration with Atlanta’s response to high rates of violent crime. Their effort was voted down earlier in the session in the Senate.

The House and Senate deal agrees with Kemp’s proposal to fund public school HOPE college scholarship awards at 100% of tuition. Currently they are closer to 90% except for high-achieving students who earn Zell Miller scholarships. The House originally wanted to increase it to 95% of tuition.

Lawmakers again provided tens of millions of dollars more for mental health and substance abuse programs, the second consecutive year the General Assembly has made them a priority, pointing to greater need since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spending plan would borrow more than $600 million for new construction projects, including about $50 million for a research tower at Georgia State University in Atlanta and millions more for the second phase of a modernization project at the University of Georgia and a science, technology, engineering and math education building at Kennesaw State University.