Lawmakers agree on Georgia budget with big funding increases

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers on Monday agreed a budget with spending increases on K-12 education, universities, mental health and public safety, reaping the rewards of a sharp increase in state revenues as Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers seek re-election this year .

The budget, which begins July 1, continues the $5,000-a-year pay rises that begin this month for state and university employees and turns a $2,000 bonus that K-12 teachers will receive this year into one salary increase. It also continues to increase spending on the K-12 formula and provide enough money for the state’s public universities to commit to reversing certain fees added during the Great Recession and reducing tuition costs. More than $1 billion in new funds would go to education next year compared to this year’s original budget.

“We know that federal employees will be happy with today’s budget and citizens will be very happy,” said Blake Tillery, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a Vidalia Republican.

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The plan spends $30.2 billion in state revenue and $57.9 billion in total spending.

The Senate voted 53-0 on Monday for the House-Senate Conference Committee report, while the House of Representatives has yet to debate the spending plan.

The budget provides more funding for programs that help people with disabilities avoid being sent to a nursing home. The state typically adds about 100 spots to the program each year, which proponents say has a waiting list of about 7,000 people. The $10.3 million raise would fund 513 new slots, which Tillery says is the maximum number of new slots that could currently be created by disability assistance providers.

The state would spend a total of $73 million more on its main mental health agency, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which is part of a broader mental health overhaul. In addition to providing home and community care assistance, there would be a 1% increase in reimbursement for providers of intellectual and developmental disabilities, and more than $13 million to provide additional increases above the $5,000 state pay rise for nurses and other other employees of the state psychiatric hospitals provide. There’s also money to open new psychiatric beds and $2.2 million to expand a mandatory supervised outpatient treatment program.

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Georgia’s budget funds the education of 1.7 million K-12 students and 435,000 college students, housing 45,000 state prisoners, paving 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) of highways and caring for more than 200,000 people who are mentally ill , developmentally disabled, or dependent on drugs or alcohol.

The budget also includes a spending boost on public safety, higher salaries for prosecutors and public defenders, and more spending on the state’s crime lab and coroner. A Senate plan to allocate much of increased coroner spending to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to reopen a lab in Macon has been scaled back but remains at lower levels. The budget also includes $579,000 for four GBI staff to investigate voter fraud.

There would be an additional $2,000 increase in pay for jail and juvenile court wardens, additional pay increases for nurses and other psychiatric hospital workers, and an additional $4 million increase in warden pay in private prisons serving Georgia inmates to be detained. The state would also spend $10 million on prison technology programs, including trying to find or block illegal cell phones.

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Aside from pay increases, there’s also more than $100 million to support Kemp’s plan to raise the $401,000 pension supplement for state employees from 3% to 9% and to pay employees for unused vacation time when they retire.

In higher education, $10 million would be reallocated to fund college graduation scholarships for students with unmet financial needs who are about to graduate. But there would be big changes in another college assistance program called Student Compensation Grants. Now, every Georgia resident who attends a private college is entitled to $850 a year. The budget would increase that amount to $900 per year for current students, allowing them to continue in the current program. But the existing program for new students would end next year, instead only subsidizing students in certain fields.

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