As a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and its Economic Development Subcommittee, I joined my colleagues Jan. 22-24, to begin the difficult process of reviewing Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget recommendations for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, which ends June 30, and for all of fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1.
During the joint House and Senate Appropriations Committee hearings, the governor led the presentations by detailing the major highlights of his budget proposals, with the amended budget for the current year totaling $19.3 billion and the annual budget for next year totaling $19.8 billion. He was then followed by the heads of our state agencies and departments, each of whom outlined their specific budget needs and answered committee members’ questions.
Lawmakers also heard from the state’s fiscal economist, Kenneth Heaghney, who predicted slow but steady growth in Georgia over the next few years as the employment and housing markets continue to improve. He forecast a 3.9 percent increase in tax collections for the rest of FY 2013, followed by a 4.9 percent revenue increase in the next fiscal year.
Heaghney said Georgia is seeing an increase in jobs primarily in the areas of information technology, business services, manufacturing and transportation. But he cautioned that higher federal taxes, a sluggish global economy and the national debt could offset the state’s forward progress to some extent.
In his budget remarks, Gov. Deal provided us with positive news. With increased funds available for education, the governor recommends we expand our pre-K program by 10 days, which will advance early learning and increase salaries for pre-K teachers. The governor also recommends fully funding enrollment growth for K-12 schools through the Quality Basic Education funding formula, and providing $147 million for salary increases for teachers based on training and experience in FY 2014. Additionally, Gov. Deal designates $1.6 million to continue the reading mentor program, and $41 million to new funding for the Quality Basic Education Equalization program.
In the area of higher education, the governor chose to designate specific funding to increase HOPE Scholarship awards, and to establish a new HOPE grant program: the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grant. This grant will provide additional financial assistance above what is covered by the traditional HOPE Grant for students in our Technical College System pursuing a high-demand certificate or diploma program. Gov. Deal has also allotted $84.6 million for the Board of Regents to fund growth within our colleges and universities, and $185 million to construct and equip new higher education facilities.
Like education, infrastructure is also a priority in the governor’s proposed budget. Gov. Deal designated $50 million for the Savannah Harbor Deepening Project. Gov. Deal also designated $25 million for water supply projects in an effort to continue our four year plan to boost water security. He also proposed more than $60 million in new funding for exploring innovative solutions to our state’s transportation needs. All of these projects are essential to ensuring Georgia’s infrastructure is prepared for continued state growth.
Because health care is the largest cost driver in recent budgets, growth in Medicaid expenses will require an additional $246 million in both FY 2013 and FY 2014. The budget proposal is contingent on the General Assembly approving legislation to renew the Medicaid provider fee, which has already passed the Senate and is under consideration in the House. Additionally, the Governor has worked closely with the Department of Community Health to identify areas where we can save money. The Governor also proposed an additional $35 million for mental health and developmentally disabled consumer services.
While these funding initiatives for education, infrastructure, and health care are certainly positive result of Georgia’s economic recovery over the last year, most state agencies are still being asked to make budget cuts. The amended fiscal year 2013 budget has about $26 million in spending cuts to reflect actual revenues.
After being in official recess for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and the budget hearings, the full General Assembly gets back into action this week. Monday, Jan. 28, is the fifth legislative day of the session.
Rep. Carl Von Epps (D-LaGrange), Georgia House District 132. During the legislative session, contact me at 512 Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334; by phone at 404-656-7859; or by email at email@example.com.