Georgia House seeks bigger bump in mental health spending

Georgia House members want to spend more on mental health and state universities next year, using savings from the state share of the Medicaid program and reduced debt payments.

The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted to approve House Bill 81, the state budget for the year beginning July 1. The measure moves forward to the full House, with debate there scheduled for Friday.

The state would spend $27.2 billion in state tax money, plus billions more in federal money and money raised in fees and tuition. That’s up from $26.6 billion this year.

Gov. Brian Kemp had already proposed spending $22 million more on mental health, but House members want an increase of $58 million. The House would spend more on service providers, including $12.3 million for a 5% rate increase for providers of adult intellectual and developmental disability services.

"We will make a significant statement as it relates to mental health this year," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican, told committee members.

Many of the increases throughout the budget consist of putting money back that was cut during last year’s budget process. Fearing a steep drop in revenue, lawmakers cut $2.2 billion from what they had planned to spend this year. They put about $650 billion of that back into the current year’s budget earlier this year, restoring about 60% of what had been cut from the state’s K-12 funding formula.

In the coming year, the House proposes to restore funding to state universities, raising total funding by $148 million, which is $17 million more than Kemp proposed.

Much of the increased spending would be paid for by the federal government continuing to pick up a larger share of the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program for children and disabled adults, letting Georgia pay less. The House proposes to spend $44 million less than what Kemp proposed after the federal government announced it would pay the higher share at least through September. That increased federal inflow in the current budget year already allowed lawmakers to pay one-time $1,000 bonuses to state employees.

The House would also spend less on debt payments, cut the amount it puts in Kemp’s emergency fund, and trim some other programs.

The House 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.

Some employees would get pay raises, including workers at the state Department of Driver Services. New ranks would be created for long-serving state troopers, allowing those at the top of the pay scale to get raises. There would also be money for raises for some employers in the state Department of Agriculture.

Revenues have been running far ahead of projections for the current budget year, creating questions about whether Kemp will raise his estimate of revenues for the 2022 budget. That estimate effectively caps spending. England said he doubted that would happen, saying he and other state officials still fear that there will be a large tide of state income tax refunds to people who have been unemployed.

"We’re about to see refunds going out the door, so the slack we have been seeing is going to be pulled taut," England predicted.

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