Georgia House Speaker David Ralston previewed his priorities for the 2021 legislative session at the state Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston previewed his priorities for the 2021 legislative session at the state Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021.

Credit: Beau Evans/Capitol Beat News Service

Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 state budget cleared the Georgia House of Representatives Friday after lawmakers earmarked $58 million to boost mental health services.

The spending plan, which passed 136-31 and now heads to the Georgia Senate, originally had set aside a $22 million increase for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The House added another $36 million for what Speaker David Ralston has made a key part of his agenda for this year’s legislative session.

“I think we’ve added a huge amount of resources to this important issue,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said after Friday’s vote. “It’s never as much as you hope to do, but I think this was a realistic effort, and I think it sends a strong message that we’re making mental health a priority in Georgia.”

The additional mental health funding would provide more resources for addiction treatment, suicide prevention and school mental-health specialists.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, also put a special emphasis on education, restoring 60% of the spending cuts lawmakers imposed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic last June on Georgia’s K-12 schools and the state university system.

The House also added $50 million to the $883 million bond package Kemp recommended in January for construction projects around the state. Much of that money would go toward buildings on university and technical college campuses.

Ralston dismissed criticism from House Democrats over not pulling more money from the state’s “rainy-day” reserves fund to plug budget gaps, noting state lawmakers have approved millions of dollars in emergency spending to fight COVID-19 since last summer.

“We have to be very cautious in terms of drawing down large sums out of the rainy-day fund,” he said.

But House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, and Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, the only Democrats who spoke from the House floor Friday, said it’s ridiculous to use federal COVID-19 relief money to plug budget gaps without spending down the reserves.

They also used the budget debate to renew Democrats’ longstanding call to expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia under the Affordable Care Act, which could be done largely with federal money.

“I absolutely cannot reconcile throwing away billions in federal funds that would help all of our constituents have access to health care, that would save our rural hospitals from closing and that would save as well as create jobs, especially when we take federal funds when it’s convenient for us,” Clark said.

“I think there’s a better way moving forward,” Beverly said. “We just need to take the time to do it.”

Both Kemp and former Gov. Nathan Deal, his immediate predecessor, have argued there’s no guarantee the federal money would continue flowing into Medicaid indefinitely. They have said any reduction in federal support would leave the state holding the bag.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Capitol Beat News Service.