Georgia lawmakers set to hash out final details of $27.3 billion budget

By: - March 23, 2021 6:29 pm

The Georgia Senate Monday approved a $27.3 billion budget for next year, adding money for schools and health care. The unanimous vote sets up deliberations with the House before the 2021 session ends next week. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

State lawmakers are putting the final touches on a $27.3 billion spending plan for next year that will also benefit from billions of dollars in new federal coronavirus relief aid.

The Senate unanimously backed its version of the budget Tuesday, setting the stage for both chambers to dispatch their negotiators to hash out a finished plan. There are three legislative days left in this year’s session.

Lawmakers have erased many of the cuts they imposed last summer when budget writers feared the worst effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. State revenues have since defied those dire predictions and are trending up.

Still, some cuts – including about a $400 million cut to public education – remain. Democrats have criticized GOP lawmakers for leaving the reductions in place while the state sits on about $2.7 billion in reserves.

Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, argued that the additional $4.2 billion coming through the American Rescue Plan Act for the state’s K-12 schools will more than offset the lingering reduction.

Tillery also continued to sound a cautious note Tuesday about what the future holds. For one, the state’s glowing revenues reports may prove slightly misleading because of the delay in issuing tax refunds. Also, those federal relief funds that have softened much of the economic blow during the pandemic are temporary.

“We are in a better position than we thought we would be at this point in time last year, and this budget reflects that, but at the same time, I think it reflects the caution that we feel as we’re rolling into another year with a lot of uncertainty on the horizon,” Tillery said.

The new version of the budget has increased funding for a variety of priorities, including $1.5 million for respite care services for those caring for adults with developmental disabilities and another $1 million to boost the state’s capability to provide mental health services through telehealth. This is in addition to the $36 million the House already shifted toward the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities for mental health services.

Senators also shifted more than $1 million to domestic violence shelters that Tillery said are facing a loss of federal funding.

And superior court judges without law clerks would be able to hire one at a combined cost of about $2.3 million, which Tillery said is intended to help tackle the expected backlog in court cases due to the pandemic.

Some senators, though, expressed concern that lawmakers were giving Gov. Brian Kemp too much leeway in how the state spends the $4.6 billion from the latest round of coronavirus relief money – including a decision whether to use the money to restore the rest of the cuts made last year.

The money can be spent on a range of expenses, including assistance to households, aid to the tourism industry, revenue losses due to the pandemic and investments in broadband infrastructure.

Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, also objected to the $40 million that the governor proposed for grants to rural communities through a new “rural innovation fund.” The money would go toward helping the state’s smaller communities develop “targeted solutions for economic, medical, technological or infrastructure challenges,” according to the budget document.

Jordan said the OneGeorgia Authority, where the fund would be housed, has been known as the “governor’s slush fund.”

“There aren’t any real parameters in terms of where that money can be spent, except for the fact that it can’t be spent in eight – eight – metro Atlanta counties. So, 151 counties, apparently are rural,” Jordan said. “And all of this money can be used for whatever basically in terms of this authority just to kind of hand out. That’s not transparent.

“I think that’s problematic, especially in light of the fact that were not even funding (public education) fully,” she added.

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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.