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Sunday February 7th, 2016 4:51PM

Deal would keep Ga. spending relatively flat

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA - Georgia would keep state government spending relatively flat under a $19.9 billion budget plan announced Thursday by Gov. Nathan Deal that aims to trim some health care costs while adding limited funding for scholarships and dredging at the Port of Savannah.

The Republican governor faces budget pressures from a recession that has driven down state tax collections and from an increase in people seeking government-funded health care amid the down economy. Given the tepid recovery from the Great Recession and the wrangling over federal fiscal policy, Deal's administration is not counting on major growth.

"While Georgia's economy continues to grow, uncertainty remains at both a national and global level," Deal said in a letter to lawmakers. His plans for the budget year ending in June and the one following "maintain a cautious approach to the current and next fiscal year, focusing on meeting the basic needs of our growing state, eliminating waste and streamlining government, while planning for contingencies in the event larger economic uncertainties impact revenues here at home."

Highlights of Deal's budget plans include:

Calling for policy changes to address health care spending. As the economy slumped, the number of people enrolling in the state's Medicaid program has grown, forcing an increase in state spending. To compensate, Deal earlier ordered state agencies to make budget cuts. His administration has also proposed several policy changes, including cutting payments to medical providers when the sick are readmitted to hospitals for preventable conditions and setting limits on prescription drug coverage.

Restoring 10 days of instruction that were previously cut from a pre-kindergarten program;

Slightly increasing the value of lottery funded HOPE scholarships for college students. Deal and lawmakers previously made deep cuts to the program as lottery revenues slumped.

Proposing a new HOPE grant to assist students in the technical college system who are pursuing high-demand certificates and diplomas;

Adding roughly $300 million in legally required spending to compensate school districts for growth and teacher salaries;

Providing $50 million in state funding for dredging the Port of Savannah to accommodate larger cargo ships. Significant federal funding is still required to finish the project.

Directing an additional $25 million for an ongoing Deal initiative to expand the state's water supply, including by developing reservoirs. Georgia has been locked in a long-running water dispute with neighboring Alabama and Florida.
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