For The Record
Lawmakers skirmish over Georgia’s budget; Senate’s new volley slashes higher education spending
Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, presents the Senate’s proposal for next year’s spending plan as Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Majority Leader Steve Gooch look on. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder
The state Senate’s spending plan for next year, which includes deep cuts to higher education and Georgia Public Broadcasting, easily cleared the chamber Thursday. But more changes are expected in the coming days.
The Senate passed the budget Thursday with a 51-to-1 vote, with a Republican casting the lone dissenting vote.
House budget writers quickly pushed back on the Senate proposal, and the $32.4 billion spending plan is now being negotiated behind the scenes. Wednesday, which is the last day of the session, is the looming deadline for lawmakers to wrap up the one task they are constitutionally required to do each year.
State senators passed a budget that bumps a pay raise for law enforcement up to $6,000 – up from the $2,000 teachers and other state workers would receive – and restored the 100% funding for the state’s HOPE scholarship, back to where Gov. Brian Kemp originally set it.
But the Senate’s budget would also slash GPB’s budget by $3.7 million – or 26%.
Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said other news stations have questioned why their competitor receives state funding.
“We would love for the continued focus on educational programming. I think maybe some of the competitors have struck a chord with members of this body and others who brought up the fact that why are we picking winners and losers?” Tillery said. “And right now, that argument is winning the day at least in this body.”
Tillery shrugged off talk of a budget fight under the Gold Dome and argued that the two chambers weren’t all that far apart. He said the House and Senate agree on about 83% of the lines in the budget.
“Folks in this building will try to stir you up sometimes and get you worried. I want to remind you they’re getting you worried about 236 lines – 236 lines out of 1,412,” Tillery said.
The budget has become ensnared in the tense back-and-forth between leadership in both chambers over a Senate-backed push to make it easier for new hospitals to open in counties with less than 50,000 people.
The bill is a priority for Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Jackson Republican whose father owns land where a new hospital in Butts County could be built, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Senate Bill 99 was heard in a House committee earlier this week but ran into apprehension about the potential impact on vulnerable rural hospitals across the state – a common concern that emerges anytime a lawmaker attempts to make even minor changes to the strict hospital regulations. No vote was taken on the measure.
Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican, on Thursday introduced a proposal for a study committee to reexamine the state’s certificate-of-need program.
The wording of Cooper’s resolution was critical of the longstanding hospital regulations but said players in the debate are “working together in the legislative session for a calm, truthful, and deliberative dialog to modernize Georgia’s very outdated certificate of need laws.”
Meanwhile, across the building the House’s proposal to expand behavioral health services – a key bill for House leadership – was left stuck in committee as the deadline for committees to complete work came and went.
The Senate-passed spending plan also includes other cuts to the University System of Georgia, like an eye-popping $87 million cut to public universities. Senators also rebuffed a $18 million health insurance increase.
Those two changes alone work out to be $105 million in cuts to higher education – which is the equivalent of the state funding set aside for a new electronic medical records system at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, the Associated Press reported.
Chancellor Sonny Perdue, who leads the system, has raised concerns about how the Senate’s hospital bill could threaten a partnership deal with the university and Wellstar Health System.
Tillery justified the cuts Thursday by saying the system did not consult lawmakers about the health insurance increase and that senators wanted to shift money toward beefing up Medicaid spending. He also said USG has about $500 million carried over from last year that will help it absorb the cut.
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