Georgia Senate backs $5 billion state spending increase, including worker bonuses and roadbuilding

Georgia’s Senate is supporting changes to the state budget that would add $5 billion in spending.

Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Georgia’s Senate is supporting changes to the state budget that would add $5 billion in spending, including money for bonuses already paid to state employees and teachers, additional roadbuilding, new dental and medical schools, and paying down some state debts.

The Senate voted 54-1 on Thursday to pass House Bill 915, which adds money to the current budget running through June 30. The House and Senate will now seek to work out their differences, sending the measure to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp once they agree.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, told senators that there were relatively few differences between Kemp’s proposal and those of the House and Senate. “For 95% of the budget, there’s agreement,” Tillery said.

Kemp proposed raising spending of state money to $37.5 billion from the $32.5 billion that lawmakers approved last year. Total spending, including federal aid, college tuition, fines and fees, would rise to $67.5 billion

The state can spend lots more, even though growth in tax collections is slowing, because Kemp set a revenue estimate much lower than what the state will actually collect this year and because Georgia has $10.7 billion in surplus cash beyond its $5.4 billion rainy day fund. Kemp would spend up to $2 billion of the surplus.

Because lawmakers can’t spend above Kemp’s revenue estimate, lawmakers can only cut or rearrange the governor’s proposed spending.

The governor before Christmas ordered $1,000 bonuses paid to state and university employees and public school teachers. The House plan includes $315 million to pay for the bonuses. Kemp has also proposes pay raises for employees beginning July 1, which lawmakers will finalize in March when they vote on next year’s budget. Kemp wants state and university employees to get a 4% cost-of-living increase across the board, while teachers would get a roughly equivalent $2,500-a-year increase.

The Senate put its own stamp on Kemp’s plan to spend $1.5 billion more to speed planned roadwork and establish a freight infrastructure program. The Senate would spend $50 million more on road repaving to cover higher costs for asphalt and concrete, saying a federal match means the $100 million the House proposed is too much. The Senate would cut Kemp’s proposed spending increase on freight infrastructure to $500 million, and would cut increased spending on big state Department of Transportation projects to $593 million.

The Senate would use that savings to give out more aid to local governments. It would boost road and bridge aid to cities and counties to $250 million. Aid to local airports would soar to $98 million from the $27 million the House proposed. The Senate would also boost state-owned railroad aid to $8.5 million from the House-proposed $4.25 million.

That emphasis on local benefits extends in the Senate budget to an additional $14.1 million for construction at state parks, historic sites and recreation sites and a plan to give $5 million in community development grants, up from $2.5 million proposed by the House.

The Senate agreed with plans to spend $451 million to finish a new prison in Washington County and $135 million to repair other prisons. The Senate budget would spend, $15.3 million up the House’s proposed $9.8 million, to install technology to prevent state prison inmates from using contraband cellphones.

Also approved were $500 million to pay down debt in one of the state’s employee pension funds, $250 million to finance water and sewer work, and $200 million for grants and sites to attract industry.