Georgia House panel passes amended budget with new road spending, cash for bonuses already paid


ATLANTA (AP) — Amendments to Georgia's current state budget moved ahead Tuesday, including $315 million to cover bonuses that were already paid to state employees and public school teachers and $1.5 billion in extra money for road building and maintenance.

The House Appropriations Committee voted to advance House Bill 915, which would boost spending in the current budget running through June 30 by a massive $5 billion. The full House is scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday.

"I know we’ve got some really good stuff in this budget," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, a Dublin Republican.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp proposed the boost, which would push spending of state money to $37.5 billion. Total spending, including federal aid, college tuition, fines and fees, would rise to $67.5 billion

Kemp actually plans to spend less in the next full budget year beginning July 1, because he plans to spend $2 billion of reserves this year.

Georgia has $5.4 billion set aside in its rainy day fund, which is filled to its legal limit of 15% of state revenue. Beyond that, it has $10.7 billion in surplus cash collected over three years. There would be $8.7 billion left after Kemp's proposed spending.

Because the governor sets the revenue estimate, above which lawmakers can't spend, lawmakers mostly re-arrange the governor's proposed spending, and must cut something any time they want to add something else. In some cases Tuesday, House committee members voted to add back projects that Kemp originally struck from this year's budget, a move that provoked anger among lawmakers. Kemp has since softened his stance on some of that spending.

“We are working very closely together," Hatchett said of the effort to reinsert spending. "They hear us. I hear them. Nobody’s perfect.”

The governor before Christmas ordered $1,000 bonuses paid to state and university employees and public school teachers. The House plan includes that $315 million in spending.

That doesn't include larger pay raises planned 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 committee agreed to allot $1.5 billion in cash to the Georgia Department of Transportation before June 30 to speed planned roadwork and establish a freight infrastructure program. But the panel shifted the money around, proposing to spend $100 million more on road repaving to cover higher costs for asphalt and concrete. The House also boosted spending for airport aid in part to provide state matching funds for a new airport near Griffin. To pay for those changes, the panel cut Kemp's proposed spending on freight infrastructure by $131 million to $510 million.

The House would allocate Kemp's proposed $200 million increase in road and bridge aid to cities and counties in such a way that local governments wouldn't have to match the money.

The panel approved Kemp's plans to spend $451 million to finish a new prison in Washington County and $135 million to repair other prisons. The panel also added $4.2 million to already proposed money to install technology to prevent inmates from using contraband cell phones, and added $5.2 million to rotate prisoners to private prisons while the technology is installed.

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.

The House would add $10.4 million to open a child and adolescent crisis stabilization unit in Savannah, and would spend $2 million on a pilot program to relieve sheriffs from transporting mental patients.