Credit: Capitol Beat News Service
Georgia Senate makes last-minute cuts to higher education as battle brews over hospital regulations
The Georgia Senate Appropriations committee approved a spending plan Tuesday that cuts more than $100 million from the state’s higher education budget amidst a fight with the House over hospital regulations.
The committee's substitute version of the fiscal year 2024 budget would cut $87 million from the state’s college and university teaching budget, rejects an $18 million health insurance increase requested by the university system and slashes more than 25% of state funding for Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Republican leadership in Georgia regularly touts the state’s strong economy and conservative budgeting process, with record surpluses in recent years leading to multiple tax rebates while also increasing spending around priorities like health care and education. State agencies have rarely seen major cuts to their funding without explanation, and when cuts to state services were made recently during the pandemic, they were nearly uniform across the board.
The overall budget proposal still sits at more than $32 billion, but the change in funding priorities comes as Republicans in the House and Senate are engaged in a bitter battle over a bill that would relax requirements for building new health care facilities in rural areas.
Senate Bill 99 would remove the so-called “certificate of need” process needed before a provider could offer new services or open a new facility in counties with fewer than 50,000 residents. Supporters of the measure say the CON rules, in place since the 1970s, stifle competition and prevent communities from having more access to affordable health care. Opponents of the bill say it could starve resources from existing health care facilities competing for the same patients.
Further complicating the politics of the matter is a proposed hospital in Butts County that could be allowed under the bill without a certificate of need. A potential site for that facility is on land owned by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones’ father. Jones has been a huge proponent of the bill.
So in the final days of the legislative session, the House and Senate appear to be at an impasse over the fate of that legislation, with a House-backed proposal continuing to expand mental health care and the state’s spending plan seemingly caught up in the fighting.
While the versions of the budget proposed by the governor, the House and the Senate always differ, the Senate’s last-minute change comes on the heels of reporting that University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue met with House Republicans to explain why passing the CON bill could jeopardize Wellstar Health System’s potential takeover of the Augusta University Health System.
Lawmakers recently approved $105 million in this year’s amended budget for upgrades to the Medical College of Georgia as part of the proposal.
The $87 million reduction in the higher education teaching budget and the denial of a request for $18 million to cover an increase in health insurance adds up to $105 million, but another change does not appear to directly tie into the inter-chamber fight.
In Tuesday’s hearing, Senate Appropriations chairman Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) briefly mentioned the reduction in proposed spending for GPB as “based on testimony and current requests” and did not elaborate further on the reason for the cuts.
Gov. Brian Kemp's recommended budget for GPB, also known as the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, is about $14 million for the next fiscal year which begins July 1, and the House’s proposal also matches that amount.
But the Senate budget bill would “reduce funds and recognize other funds available” by more than $3.7 million, leaving the organization with just over $10.6 million in appropriations.
The full Senate still has to approve the budget, with House and Senate leadership likely meeting to hash out differences in a conference committee before the end of the legislative session next Wednesday.