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Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 5:32am

Lawmakers Focus On Budget

State legislators began hearings on the 2013 budget Tuesday. They will hold meetings on the Governor's spending proposal for the rest of the week. Gov. Nathan Deal reiterated that his budget plan calls for modest spending increases.

Gov. Deal’s $19.2 billion budget proposal includes increases in education, corrections and retirement spending.

Specifically, he wants to fund enrollment growth in the university and technical college systems. That’s something the state didn’t do last year. It will cost about $110 million.

Deal says his budget’s few growth areas are conservative:

“It provides additional prison beds and it includes required contributions to our state health benefit plans and our retirement systems," he told state legislators. "Outside of funding this growth, my budget recommendation calls for increased spending of three-tenths of one percent.”

Deal said his 2013 budget recommendation is 20 percent lower than the 2002 spending plan, when adjusted for inflation.

Lawmakers also heard testimony from officials in various state agencies.

State Higher Education officials told legislators that Georgia’s college students are struggling to afford tuition and fees.

The University System of Georgia has lost about $1 billion in funding in the past four years. For fiscal year 2013 starting in July, it will have to cut 2 percent of its budget, or $38 million.

System Chancellor Hank Huckaby says the state’s colleges and universities are learning to live with smaller budgets.

But he told legislators that students haven’t been able to adapt. He says they are dealing with simultaneous tuition increases and decreases to the state college scholarship program.c

“I talk to so many students who are right on the verge, right on the balance of having to drop out of school, because as low as our fees are, they couldn’t afford perhaps the next semester’s tuition,” he said.

He says officials will need to address affordability soon. He also said state colleges will need to make a strong case if they want to raise tuition or fees this year.

The university system will receive about $70 million to cover enrollment growth at the state’s colleges and universities, under the 2013 budget proposal.

University System treasurer John Brown says the 2 percent in budget cuts will come from various sources, including deferring maintenance and reducing travel expenses.

“Approximately half of the $38 million in reductions will be people-related, either through maintaining vacancies, attrition, using part-time faculty in some cases,” Brown told legislators.

The University System plans to merge several state colleges. But Brown said he might not know how much money the move will save until 2014, after the consolidation takes effect.