Private prison operators also will receive more money under the plan to give raises to their corrections officers, 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 state Employees Retirement System board last month approved the first cost-of-living increase for those former employees 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 will spend 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.
“This budget is incredible, it’s like something we have never seen,” Kemp said before signing the measure.
The spending plan provides the biggest one-year increase in state funding for mental health programs ever. The mental health agency’s budget will see a $183 million increase.
Lawmakers backed Kemp’s proposal to boost state spending on higher education and to eliminate the “institutional fees” that students have been forced to pay since the Great Recession, when the General Assembly slashed college funding.
The teacher pay raise is particularly important to Kemp, who faces a 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 will fulfill that promise.
In total, the state will 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 will 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.
One of the reasons the state has been so flush with tax money to spend in recent years is the massive amount of federal COVID-19 relief funding Georgians and governments have received. Democrats say Kemp and other Republican leaders have conveniently ignored that in their regular touting of state finances.
“After calling Democrats’ American Rescue Plan a ‘slap in the face for hardworking Georgians,’ Brian Kemp is hypocritically trying to take credit because he thinks it will help his chances of reelection,” said Max Flugrath, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia. “When it comes to criticizing and then trying to take credit for Democrats’ work, Kemp doesn’t care about his blatant hypocrisy as long as he thinks it’ll help his political career.”