Georgia budget may cut university funds, boost scholarships

The Georgia Senate passed a budget on Thursday that cuts $87 million from teaching at the state's public universities, money connected to a dispute with the House over hospital permits and funding.

The Senate and House face a deadline of next Wednesday, the last day of the 2023 legislative session, to work out differences.

Senators voted 51-1 for House Bill 19, which would spend $32.4 billion in state money in the 2024 year beginning July 1. Counting federal and other money, the state would spend nearly $56 billion. 

The Senate agreed with Gov. Brian Kemp's plans to pay full tuition for everyone receiving a HOPE college scholarship and to give all state employees and public school teachers $2,000 raises. In the Senate proposal, some state law enforcement officers would get $6,000, up from a $4,000 bump sought by the House.

Georgia's budget pays to educate 1.75 million K-12 students and 465,000 college students, house 48,000 state prisoners, pave 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) of highways and care for more than 200,000 people who are mentally ill, developmentally disabled or addicted to drugs or alcohol.

 Work on the sprawling document has been shadowed by Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones' push for a bill that could allow a new hospital to be built near his home in Butts County. That could financially benefit his family if it's built on land his father owns. House leaders have shown little willingness to allow hospitals to be built in smaller counties without state permits. 

 The dispute is also linked to an attempt by Wellstar Health System to take over Augusta University's hospitals, and to a House push for additional changes to the state's mental health system. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery downplayed those conflicts and the impacts of the Senate's proposed cuts to universities, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Augusta University's Georgia Cyber Center. He emphasized how much House and Senate leaders already agree on. 

"I saw lines that we're in a budget fight, that this building is going to burn down, they don't know if we're going to make it," the Vidalia Republican said, dismissing concerns that an agreement couldn't be reached in coming days.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, a Dublin Republican, said Wednesday that he opposes cuts to universities. 

 Besides the $87 million cut to teaching, the Senate budget would cut $18 million from public university health insurance. Together that equals the $105 million Augusta University was given in the amended 2023 budget, at Kemp's behest, to purchase a new electronic medical records system. Jones argues that money was an unfair giveaway to Marietta-based Wellstar Health System, which is in  talks to take over Augusta University hospitals . Wellstar also owns a small hospital in Butts County and opposes the push for a competing hospital there. 

Tillery argued that universities are sitting on $500 million of cash, that the state needed to spend more on the Medicaid health insurance program, and that a slowing economy could hurt state revenues. He warned that having universities spend their reserves would "conserve valuable state dollars."

University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue has warned the decrease would hurt "teaching budgets, staff and students." Tillery said Thursday that regents who oversee the system should allot money in a way to avoid negative impacts.

Senators agreed with Kemp's plan to eliminate the current two-tier system of lottery-funded HOPE Scholarships, going back to the original system of paying full tuition for all high school graduates who earn a B average. The House wants to pay full tuition for only Zell Miller scholars, a distinction requiring students to earn higher grades and a minimum standardized test score. The House would pay 95% of tuition for other HOPE recipients, up from 90% now.

The Senate agreed with a House plan to again give $500 bonuses for 54,000 retirees in the state Employees Retirement System. Retirees in that plan have not received regular cost-of-living increases.

The Senate would pay for home services for 500 more people with intellectual, developmental, or physical disabilities - up from 375 proposed by the House. The state funded home services for 500 people this year, but has thousands on a waiting list.

The Senate would spend $5 million to screen young students for dyslexia and spend an additional $112 million on a state reinsurance program that reduces health insurance premiums on the federally subsidized market.