Ga. House gives final OK to budget with no furloughs but school cuts

The Georgia House gave final approval Friday to the only thing lawmakers were legally required to pass during the coronavirus-interrupted session: a $26 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins next week.

The budget for fiscal 2021 — which starts Wednesday — includes spending cuts in everything from k-12 schools and universities to health care programs and law enforcement, but no furloughs for state employees.

It also calls for the state to borrow $1.1 billion for construction, maintenance and improvement projects, from roads and bridges to schools and campus facilities.

Overall spending was cut 10%.

“There is nothing easy about cutting 10% out of the budget,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn,

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Still, he told colleagues before the vote, “There are many, many things in this budget to be proud of. There are many, many things in this budget to vote yes on.”

Gov. Brian Kemp complimented lawmakers on the spending plan.

“You have passed a conservative budget that reflects our values, prioritizing education, health care and public safety,” Kemp said.

The coronavirus pandemic brought record unemployment, and thousands of businesses either closed or still struggle to remain open. That, in turn, has sent state tax collections — mostly for income and sales taxes — plummeting.

England said Kemp’s recent estimate — which showed the revenue drop wouldn’t be quite as bad as earlier expected — allowed budget writers to avoid asking employees to take days off without pay and gave them a chance to mitigate many of the cuts to health programs.

Lawmakers and agencies had originally planned for 14% cuts, but Kemp reduced the figure to 10% this week. He also agreed to pour about $250 million in reserve funds into the state budget. That helped mitigate what agencies had to cut.

The difference between the 14% cut originally proposed and 10% is about $1 billion.

Democrats — and some Republicans in the Senate — have pushed for the state to lessen the cuts further by approving a cigarette tax hike and cutting back on some special-interest tax breaks to businesses.

Cigarette tax increase bills have stalled in both chambers, and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, made it clear his chamber wouldn’t consider tax-break reductions, saying doing so would be a “job killer.”

Under the spending plan, members of the General Assembly will see their $17,000 salaries cut 10% this year, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s $90,000 salary would drop 14%.

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