Lawmakers clash over Georgia budget; New Senate volley slashes higher education spending

The Georgia Senate’s spending plan for next year, which includes deep cuts to higher education and Georgia’s public broadcasting, easily passed the chamber. But more changes are expected in the coming days.

The Senate passed the budget 51 to 1, with a Republican casting the only dissenting vote.

House budget framers quickly rebuffed the Senate proposal, and the $32.4 billion spending plan is now being negotiated behind the scenes. Wednesday, which is the last day of the session, is the looming deadline for lawmakers to wrap up the only task they are constitutionally required to do each year.

State senators passed a budget on Thursday that raises a pay raise for law enforcement up to $6,000 — up from $2,000 for teachers and other state employees — and reinstated the 100% funding from the state’s HOPE scholarship, where Governor Brian Kemp originally defined it.

But the Senate budget would also cut Georgia Public Broadcasting’s budget by $3.7 million, or 26%.

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Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said other news stations questioned why their competitor was receiving state funding.

Tillery shrugged off talk of a budget fight under the Gold Dome and argued that the two chambers weren’t that far apart. He said the House and Senate agreed on about 83% of budget lines.

“People in this building will sometimes try to excite you and worry you. I want to remind you that they worry you for 236 lines – 236 lines out of 1,412,” Tillery said.

The budget has become ensnared in tense back-and-forths between the leaders of the two chambers over a Senate-backed push to make it easier to open new hospitals in counties with fewer than 50,000 people.

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The bill is a priority for Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson whose father owns land where a new hospital in Butts County could be built, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Senate Bill 99 was heard before a House committee earlier this week, but raised concerns about the potential impact on the state’s vulnerable rural hospitals – a common concern that emerges whenever a legislator is trying to make even minor changes to strict hospital regulations. No vote was taken on the measure.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta, on Thursday presented a proposal for a review committee to re-examine the state’s certificate of need program.

The wording of Cooper’s resolution criticized longstanding hospital regulations, but said those involved in the debate are “working together in the legislative session for a calm, truthful and deliberative dialogue to modernize Georgia’s very outdated laws on certificates of need”.

Meanwhile, across the building, the House proposal to expand behavioral health services — a key bill for House leadership — has stalled in committee as the deadline for committees to wrap up their labors came and went.

The spending plan passed by the Senate also includes other cuts to Georgia’s university system, such as an impressive $87 million cut to public universities. Senators also rejected an $18 million increase in health insurance.

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These two changes alone represent $105 million in cuts to higher education, equivalent to public funding set aside for a new electronic medical records system at Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia, reported the Associated Press.

Chancellor Sonny Perdue, who leads the system, has raised concerns about how the Senate Hospitals Bill could threaten a partnership agreement with the university and the Wellstar Health System.

Tillery justified the cuts Thursday by saying the system had failed to consult with lawmakers about increasing health insurance and that senators wanted to shift money toward bolstering Medicaid spending. He also said the university system has about $500 million carried over from last year that will help it absorb the cut.

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