Lawmakers approve $27.2B budget for new year as federal relief flows

    State lawmakers passed a $27.2 billion spending plan for next year on the final day of the legislative session Wednesday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    State lawmakers finalized a $27.2 billion spending plan for next year, although it remains to be seen how exactly the state will dispatch the billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief money that will soon flood Georgia.

    Both chambers overwhelmingly approved the budget on the final day of this year’s legislative session Wednesday, sending it to the governor’s desk. The budget takes effect July 1.

    “This relief is timely, but I add a cautionary note: Federal funds are never permanent,” said Rep. Terry England, an Auburn Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “And just like the process for restoring state funds, we do not blatantly backfill federal funds when they go away.”

    Gov. Brian Kemp did not make his traditional last-day visit to the chambers, since he is quarantining after coming in contact recently with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

    But he did leave lawmakers with a letter Wednesday addressing a lingering question: Would the federal funds be used to erase the rest of the budget cuts made last summer when revenues were expected to plummet?

    Kemp wrote that he is still awaiting more specifics from the U.S. Treasury on how the funds can be spent, but the $4.6 billion in federal aid will likely not fill those holes since state revenues defied the dire predictions that spurred lawmakers to cut $2.2 billion last year.

    “As a result of our measured and balanced approach in response to COVID-19, our economy is strong, and current projections for FY 2022 are greater than collections in FY 2019,” the governor wrote.

    That is cold comfort to lawmakers who are dismayed to see nearly $382 million in reductions to public education remain in the budget. But the Legislature’s top budget writers argue that the $4 billion in federal aid for K-12 schools will more than made up for the lost state funds.

    To highlight the federal boost to schools, handouts showing the amount of federal aid flowing to individual districts were distributed to lawmakers Wednesday.

    “So, the reduction of the $382 million is – I won’t say miniscule because dollars do matter, I understand that – but I would say pennies on the dollar to the federal adds,” said Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

    Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, questioned if the plan is to continue the cuts because of one-time federal funding. Tillery, though, offered an alternative view: the federal funds have allowed the state to shift state funds to other areas of need, pointing to the nearly $36 million increase for mental health services.

    Next year’s budget also now includes a range of funding priorities, such as $1.5 million for respite care services for those caring for adults with developmental disabilities in rural Georgia and another $1 million to boost the state’s capability to provide mental health services through telehealth.

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

    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.