The procedural vote came as the General Assembly works out the final details in what’s arguably its most important annual job: deciding how much the government should spend to support public services such as schools and colleges, health care, public safety, regulators and infrastructure.
The 51-4 vote in the Senate is just one of several steps still required to adopt a budget. The Senate proposal differs from the budget plan adopted by House lawmakers, meaning legislators will probably create a special committee to negotiate a compromise. Once lawmakers approve a joint plan, it then heads to Gov. Nathan Deal who can accept, reject or revise it.
Tax collections have been climbing as the economy slowly recovers. But the growth has not been large enough to completely recover from the deep spending cuts made during the depths of the Great Recession.
“It’s a very moderately increased budget,” said state Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Democratic minority leader, Sen. Steve Henson, suggested the spending was still not enough.
“I’m here today to ask you is it good to have class sizes up up 10 and 12 students from where they were 10 years ago or 12 years ago?” Henson said during a debate. “I’m here to ask you is it fair for state employees to not have had a raise in six years?”
One likely debate will be whether Georgia should spend $10 million to fund investments in private startup companies. Georgia previously created the legal framework for those investments, but lawmakers never appropriated any money for it. The Senate plan would allocate $10 million, while Deal and House lawmakers did not originally seek to fund it.
In a point of agreement, Deal and lawmakers have proposed giving local school districts an additional $314 million that can be used to restore teacher pay cuts and add more instruction days to the school year. Ultimately, local school officials will decide how to use those funds.
Senate lawmakers opted to slightly scale back additional spending intended to increase the ranks and salaries of state food safety inspectors. Senate legislators also supported hiring two more regulators at the Public Service Commission to scrutinize Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power’s spending on a new nuclear plant in eastern Georgia. That project is currently trending over its government-approved budget. The Senate wants to hire two more staffers for the oversight work, but House lawmakers voted to approve one position.
As is typical, state lawmakers want to borrow money to fund projects that were not included in Deal’s original budget plan. For example, House and Senate lawmakers want to borrow nearly $1.3 million to build a simulator that trains law enforcement officials on how to confront an active shooter. Other borrowing proposals would allow colleges and universities to buy land, renovate buildings or establish a new office for the Department of Driver Services.