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Saturday April 10th, 2021 3:25PM

Georgia lawmakers ink final deal on $27.3B state budget

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers have agreed to a 2022 budget that restores some money to K-12 education, increases some mental health funding, and pays nursing home operators more.

The budget passed the Senate 52-0 and then passed the House 148-21 on Wednesday, the last day of the 2021 session, after the House and Senate worked out relatively minor differences. It was still awaiting a vote in the House in the final hours of the session.

The plan would spend $27.3 billion in state money and $22.5 billion in federal and other money in the year starting July 1, for total spending of nearly $50 billion. The measure now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

Lawmakers are putting back a fraction of the $2.2 billion lawmakers cut last year when they feared a big drop in tax revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic. Billions of incoming federal aid will boost spending in some areas, Kemp will decide how to spend $4.6 billion more.

A majority of cuts made last year to K-12 education would be restored, and some money would be added for mental health. But many other cuts in state money made last year would stay, with state spending still below what lawmakers had originally planned for this year.

“The add-backs that the governor put back for K-12 were really the biggest parts of the budget," said Senate Appropriations Committee Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican. “The second biggest add, you’re going to see in behavioral health.”

Tillery said K-12 school systems would still be $382 million short of full funding, but that school systems are getting $6.9 billion in federal money, saying the state cuts are “pennies on the dollar” compared to the federal money.

In other areas, Tillery said budget writers had tried to fill holes with state money that there was no federal money available for.

“I think we’ve taken federal funds and state funds and pushed state funds into areas we thought were more necessary," Tillery said.

State revenues are currently on track to come in well above what was expected, but legislative leaders warn revenues might still be reduced by delayed state income tax refunds.

The House and Senate agreed to some key Kemp initiatives, including plans to spend $40 million on a rural innovation fund and $10 million to extend high-speed internet in rural areas.

Republican majority lawmakers are once again declining to fully expand the state-federal Medicaid program to provide more people with health insurance. Lawmakers did agree to additional money for the Kemp administration to pursue a more limited expansion, although President Joe Biden's administration has put that on hold.

The spending plan would provide pay increases to state troopers, bank examiners, food inspectors and driver's license employees.

The plan puts back $58.9 million in cuts that were made last year in the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, Georgia's main mental health agency, restoring funding for addiction treatment and creating a new behavioral crisis unit for those with developmental disabilities. It also increases payments for some mental health providers.

The state will increase payment rates to nursing homes by $90 million, saying nursing providers have been hard-hit by the pandemic and need financial relief.

The budget would spend nearly $1 million more on domestic violence and sexual assault centers, with lawmakers saying those operations are facing a funding crunch.

___

Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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