Ga. Senate leaders OK fiscal 2022 budget with $1 billion in construction, more for schools

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Georgia Senate leaders backed their version of the state’s $27.2 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year Monday in an important step toward finishing the last task lawmakers are required by law to complete this session: pass a budget.

The measure, which would kick in July 1, broadly follows the proposals of Gov. Brian Kemp and the House by backfilling spending cuts that lawmakers made in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The General Assembly made 10% cuts in June 2020 because it feared tax collections would plummet. That didn’t happen: Tax collections have improved with Georgia’s economy.

But even with that, and the $4.7 billion the state is receiving from the latest federal COVID-19 relief plan, Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said lawmakers should be cautious.

“Our state finances have outperformed where we were last year, but I am not at the point where I can tell you all is good and we’re in the clear,” Tillery said. “There is a lot of uncertainty that remains.”

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The full Senate is expected to pass the budget this week, and then House and Senate negotiators will work out a final deal. The session is set to end March 31.

The House and Senate plans include pay raises in areas where there is high turnover in state government, such as for staffers in the Department of Driver Services and prison and juvenile justice guards. It does not include a pay raise for rank-and-file employees or teachers.

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The budget notes the money the state will receive for COVID-19 relief, but under state law, Kemp will be the one to decide how it is spent.

The House and Senate spending plans agree 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.

Lawmakers agreed to backfill 60% of the education spending reductions that lawmakers approved last year, when they cut the budget by 10%.

Under the fiscal 2022 budget, the state would borrow about $1 billion for construction projects, much of it going for new schools, college buildings, roads and bridges, and a convention center in Savannah

The plan also includes more money for nursing homes hit hard by COVID-19 and medical providers. Millions of extra dollars would be allocated for various mental health programs, some of which have been overwhelmed by the impact the pandemic has had on mental health and addiction problems.

The budget would add staff to a number of agencies, including the Department of Community Health, the state ethics commission, the Department of Revenue and the secretary of state’s office.

It puts $66 million more into the Teachers Retirement System to help the massive pension program’s finances, and it asks the Employees Retirement System — the pension plan for state workers — to send pensioners an extra monthly check.

While retired teachers receive 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.