Georgia State Capitol

Two bills that passed the General Assembly would prohibit local governments from regulating poultry plant processing wastes or adopting building codes based on the source of energy to be used.

Credit: Capitol Beat News Service

The Georgia Senate passed its version of next year’s $32.4 billion state budget Thursday that includes less money for teachers in higher education and slashes 26% of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s state funding.

HB 19, which passed on a 51-1 vote, would also give state employees and teachers a $2,000 pay increase, fully fund HOPE college scholarships to cover 100% tuition and give a $500 cost-of-living increase to state retirees.

Both the House and Senate versions of the budget include more than $13 billion for Georgia’s K-12 education, fully funding the state’s Quality Basic Education Formula, adding $27 million for more school counselors. The Senate would add nearly $5 million in new funds for dyslexia screening.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) said ultimately the House and Senate agree on the vast majority of budget items.

“If you take a look at just where two of the bodies agree, just the House and the Senate, there are 1,176 lines where we already agree, that's 83.29%,” he said. “You see folks in this building will try to stir you sometimes and get you worried. I want to remind you, they're getting you worried about 236 lines, 236 lines out of 1,412.”

Some of the key differences between the Senate’s version and the House budget that passed earlier this month stem from a protracted fight between the chambers over a bill that would reduce barriers for opening new health care facilities in rural communities.

Senate Bill 99 would eliminate health care providers from needing to seek a certificate of need (referred to as CON) from the state before adding additional facilities or services for counties that have fewer than 50,000 residents, something supporters say is needed to expand health care access and lower costs for patients. Opponents argue the CON process protects existing providers.

The chamber’s proposal would boost pay raises for some law enforcement like state troopers to $6,000, up from the governor’s $2,000 request and the House’s $4,000 recommendation. Some of that money would come from an $87 million reduction in the teaching budget for the state’s colleges and universities.

“The Senate's budget also supports conservative budgeting by requesting that our Board of Regents utilize carry-forward funds to support the teaching formula and conserve valuable state dollars at a time that I've told you where the clouds on the horizon are beginning to look a little darker,” Tillery said. 

Gov. Brian Kemp and other top Republican leaders regularly tout the state’s economic prosperity, record-setting tax surplus and budgeting approach that has led to multiple tax breaks and refunds in recent years.

Additionally, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this week that University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue met with House Republicans to discuss reasons to oppose the CON bill. The reduction in teaching funds, combined with a rejection of a requested health insurance increase totals for the Board of Regents, matches the amount of funds the state appropriated in the amended fiscal year budget for upgrading a medical records system that could benefit a health provider opposed to the CON bill.

In a statement to GPB News, Perdue said he looked forward to continuing working with lawmakers and expressed confidence the proposed cuts to the University System of Georgia would resolve themselves before the session ends Wednesday.”

“The $113 million decrease would significantly impact all 26 USG public colleges and universities, many of which are already experiencing a negative budget impact due to declining enrollment,” Perdue said. “These additional funding reductions would impact teaching budgets, staff and students.”

During budget hearings earlier this year, the chancellor warned lawmakers of a rise in students choosing to attend college outside of Georgia and the impact it had on the state’s colleges and universities.

Senate leaders also zeroed out the budget for the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in Augusta, arguing that the division no longer needed the $5 million in state funds because it was self-sufficient from rental income and other funding sources.

The Senate budget deviates from Gov. Brian Kemp’s original proposal, which included full funding for the Board of Regents, Cybersecurity Center and Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Sen. Josh McLaurin (D-Buckhead) asked Tillery to explain the last-minute push to cut Georgia Public Broadcasting’s funding:

“On its face, there are many members of the public who have a concern about something like that,” McLaurin said.

Tillery said that unnamed “competitors” asked why the state was funding GPB and not other outlets and pointed to the 2021 fiscal year’s budget as a precedent for a decrease in GPB’s funding.

Mandy Wilson, Director of Communications for Georgia Public Broadcasting, said the agency has no comment at this time.

Now that the full Senate has approved the budget, the next step is likely a conference committee where a small number of members from each chamber will meet to hash out differences in a conference committee before the end of the legislative session next Wednesday.