Ga. Senate OKs budget with more public health money to fight COVID-19

By: - February 9, 2021 8:14 pm

This year’s revised budget will include about $42 million more for public health. Sen. Blake Tillery, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, outlined the changes to the budget Tuesday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The state Senate signed off Tuesday a revised spending plan for this year that adds funding for public health to make changes that are intended to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate budget writers backed increases made in the House and continued to expand the state Department of Public Health’s staff, adding positions that will assist with data and help manage the $1 billion in federal aid sent to Georgia to fight the pandemic.

All told, the historically bare bones agency is set to receive a half million dollars for new staffing, including a deputy commissioner and a chief medical officer at the top.

The agency is also now set to receive another $11 million to implement a new vaccine management system. That is in addition to the $16 million set aside to replace and modernize the state’s immunization registry system.

Altogether, lawmakers shifted about $42 million to public health in a budget proposal that started out depending mostly on federal dollars to combat the coronavirus, prompting criticism.

Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the funding will help connect a federally funded scheduling system for vaccines with a management distribution program so providers will not be left to wonder about the status of their shipment of shots. The goal, Tillery said, is for providers to track their delivery in “an almost an Amazon-like way.”

The Senate approved the nearly $26.6 billion budget as state revenues continue to defy the dire predictions made earlier on in the pandemic when the economy was brought to a crawl and lawmakers cut $2.2 billion from the budget. Instead, state revenues have increased.

“I think this is a budget you can be proud of,” Tillery told his colleagues in the Senate. “It’s certainly a lot better position than we were facing when we stood here last June.”

A new state report released Tuesday showed a 7.5% increase in last month’s revenues, a $175.6 million jump from last January. Revenues are up 6.3% – or nearly $900 million – so far for the year.

Gov. Brian Kemp handed over a budget that is about $654 million larger than it was when lawmakers cut $2.2 billion last summer. About $567 million of the increased spending will go toward public education and will erase about 60% of last year’s budget cut.

Lawmakers have spent the last few weeks leaving their own mark on a spending plan through the end of June. But Democrats have criticized the budget for not going further to restore cuts made last year as the state sits on about $2.7 billion in reserves.

“Many Georgia families exist on a wing and prayer, trying to hold it all together right now,” said Senate Minority Leader Sen. Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat.

“We believe – I believe – we should have done more. We could have done more,” she said.

As examples, Butler said the state could have increased funding for local public health departments or freed up state revenue by scaling back special-interest tax breaks.

The Senate passed the budget with a 52-to-0 vote. The bill now goes back to the House for final resolution. Lawmakers have been hurriedly working to button up the revised spending plan through June in case the coronavirus upends the legislative session again as it did last year.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.