(The Center Square) – The Georgia General Assembly has approved a $27.2 billion spending plan for the 2022 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The Senate and House agreed to spend more money on health care, education, transportation, state positions, internet access and economic initiatives.
The House approved the measure, 148-21, late Wednesday night after it cleared the Senate unanimously, 52-0. Lawmakers now must send the proposal for state spending through June 30, 2022, to Gov. Brian Kemp for consideration.
The proposal reflects a 2.5% increase in spending over the current fiscal year, gradually replacing more than $2 billion that was cut from the budget at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
State agencies were directed to reduce spending by 10% in 2020 as Georgia prepared for a projected revenue downfall caused by the pandemic. However, with federal support and a flexible business climate, Georgia has shown some promising strides in its recovery, state economist Jeffrey Dorfman said.
According to CNN Business’ Back-to-Normal Index, Georgia’s economy is operating at 91% of where it was in early March. Georgia’s net tax collections for February increased nearly 43% over February 2020, official reports show.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, attributed the state's resiliency to Kemp's decision to lift COVID-19 restrictions ahead of most other states.
"There is no chance that this budget would have run this smoothly had Gov. Kemp not open Georgia up as early as he did," Tillery said. "Our budget reflects the revenues of this state and the growth of the state because Gov. Kemp took a bold move in that time to reopen Georgia."
Lawmakers restored 60% of the cuts made to base funding for K-12 schools and cuts made to legislation operations and public safety. The state also will spend more money on retirement benefits for teachers. State corrections officers, medical examiners, food inspectors, public defenders, prosecutors and state troopers will receive raises under the fiscal year 2022 plan. It also funds new positions in the judiciary system and the departments of agriculture, public safety, labor and natural resources.
The state will spend about $40 million more on behavioral health services for Georgians under the proposal. Demand for the state-supported services has increased during the pandemic, lawmakers said.
The Georgia Legislature set aside $39.5 million for the Rural Innovation Fund for economic and medical technological advances in rural communities. The state also will spend $10 million to expand broadband internet access under the plan. It includes $6.7 million for therapeutic care for foster care children, and $1.5 million for new secure ballot paper required under new election law.
Lawmakers also increased funding for nursing homes, domestic violence and sexual abuse shelters, tourism, respite care services, rural health and a dyslexia screening program. They plan calls to borrow $1 billion for various capital improvement and projects at universities, colleges and libraries.
Tillery said budget writers backfilled the budget where they could with federal funds and redirected state funding to other expenses.
Georgia has received billions of dollars in federal relief from Congress. The state received more than $4 billion in direct funding from the federal government in March 2020 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Kemp and lawmakers now must decide how to spend more than $4.6 billion in direct aid from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law March 11 by President Joe Biden. Both stimulus packages also included grants from federal programs. For instance, Tillery said Wednesday Georgia's K-12 schools have received about $6.8 billion in federal coronavirus aid.
Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, questioned why the cuts were not fully restored with the added support of the federal aid. Tillery said budget writers added funds in "places" they "thought were necessary."