Georgia lawmakers OK $100 million for virus, other spending

Georgia lawmakers agreed Thursday with Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to dip into the state’s rainy day fund for $100 million that the Republican governor can spend to combat COVID-19.

“This is one those times that the foundation is being shaken and we do need to go into the emergency funds to use them for the purpose for this they are there for,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican, told lawmakers Thursday.

The House and Senate both overwhelmingly voted in favor of a conference report resolving their differences on House Bill 792, sending it to immediately to the Republican Kemp for his signature or veto.

The $100 million would come from the state’s $2.8 billion in reserves and go to the governor’s emergency fund. Lawmakers said Georgia could use the money to provide a match for federal funds as well as for other state spending. England said there’s an additional $5 million provided to rural hospitals as well to pay for effects of the new coronavirus.

Despite the new money, the plan still cuts $159 million from other spending in the state budget year that runs through June 30.

Spending cuts followed a slowdown in state revenue that began after lawmakers cut Georgia’s top income tax rate. Kemp ordered more than $200 million in midyear reductions, but the total cut will be smaller because the first-term Republican did not order cuts to most education and Medicaid spending, and those programs continue to grow with Georgia’s population.

Compared to earlier proposals from Kemp, the final plan restores money for county health departments and adds $1.5 million for an expansion project at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon. The conference report increases money for state troopers, but not by as much as the Senate wanted.

Lawmakers also shifted money around to increase funding for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab, money for preparing physicians and other health professionals, public defenders and the Department of Agriculture food inspectors. More than $30 million was shifted to prevent cuts to mental health and behavioral health programs, and lawmakers insisted on preserving money for local public libraries to buy books and other materials.