Ga. House OKs spending plan to reduce pain of some cuts

    Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican, says lawmakers did the best they could with a tight budget. Georgia House of Representatives photo

    Lawmakers signed off on a budget Tuesday that softened – or completely reversed – cuts to county health departments, mental health services, public defenders and other controversial spending reductions that Gov. Brian Kemp packed into his budget plan for next year.

    There are also popular additions: Nearly $20 million to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income new moms, $25 million to hire more school counselors and a pay raise for state employees, with a little extra cash for some jobs.

    But legislators also made another change that hasn’t gone over as well: They cut in half the governor’s proposed $2,000 pay raise for public school teachers to allow for those budget additions. Fully funding this second installment of the raise – and completing the $5,000 pay raise Kemp promised on the campaign trail – would have taken $350 million.

    Groups representing educator groups say they are disappointed by the move and hope lawmakers will change their mind.

    “Our teachers work extremely hard and are simply trying to catch up from years of no increase at all, while having to deal with escalating medical and other costs,” said Charlotte Booker, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

    The House passed next year’s budget Tuesday with a 134-to-35 vote, with some Democrats also voicing frustration that the spending plan comes up short in health care, mental health and other key areas.

    “I want to say that I am happy that we are extending Medicaid to six months for mothers, but it’s not enough,” said Rep. Erica Thomas, an Austell Democrat who has a 7-month-old daughter. “I have health insurance but there are so many mothers just like me that don’t have it and deserve it.”

    A bill that cleared the House Tuesday would extend Medicaid coverage for low-income moms to six months after delivery. Today, the coverage ends after two months. The budget includes $19.7 million to cover the additional four months proposed, but proponents continue to press for a full year of coverage.

    House budget writers, though, argued that they did the best they could a tough budget process packed with governor-ordered budget cuts and competing priorities. For example, the budget that cleared the House wipes out the $8.4 million cut Kemp included for new behavioral health services.

    “To vote against this budget today is to vote to not help some because we are not able at this moment in time to help all,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican. “I will stand and I will vote proudly to help some.”

    The $28.1 billion budget, which takes effect in July, now moves to the Senate, where more changes are likely.

    “I thank the House for their work on the budget, and I look forward to working with the Senate to pass a measure that invests in education, keeps Georgia families safe, and ensures prosperity in every region of our state,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement Monday.

    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.