Georgia lawmakers OK $49 billion budget with teacher raises

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia teachers and other state employees would get a 2 percent salary increase while staff overseeing child welfare cases will see a 19 percent raise under a state spending plan approved Wednesday by the General Assembly.

The $49 billion budget includes about $25 billion from state sources particularly income taxes; the rest is largely provided by the federal government. The spending plan for the year starting July 1 now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal, who has broad power to veto individual line-items before signing it.

The plan also continues previously announced 20 percent raises for state law enforcement, including those with the Georgia State Patrol and Bureau of Investigation. Deal first signed those increases into law in February as part of a $600 million addition to the budget for the current financial year ending June 30.

The budget includes more than $1 billion in borrowing for construction projects around the state. The package includes nearly $161 million for local schools, $73 million to complete the move of Lanier Technical College in Deal's home base of Hall County and $36 million for a new crime lab in Savannah.

Lawmakers also included $105 million to finance construction of a new judicial complex in downtown Atlanta, at the former site of the Georgia Archives building which was imploded recently to make way. The new home to Georgia's Supreme Court and other offices is estimated to cost more than $110 million by completion.

A state budget is the only piece of legislation that lawmakers are constitutionally required to approve each year and discussions often linger into the session's final days. The budget covers every state service from health care programs serving low-income residents or those with disabilities to the state employees who woo companies considering an expansion or relocation to Georgia.

The budget process has largely been drama-free in Georgia during the past two years as the state's finances recovered from the Great Recession. In January, the state reported that tax collections had increased 4.6 percent compared to the previous year. February's figures were less encouraging: Collections fell 5.6 percent compared to the same month in 2016. State officials blamed the drop on corporate and individual income tax refunds.

The General Assembly easily met the deadline to pass a budget this year; they don't plan to adjourn until March 30. Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, and Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, chair their respective chambers' budget-writing committees and said disagreements came down to less than 2 percent of the total spending.

"The winners in this are the citizens of this state," England said.

Lawmakers largely agreed with the budget proposal Deal unveiled in January but made tweaks for their own priorities and some additional construction projects.

The proposal includes about $850,000 to let the GBI hire staff and buy supplies intended to fix a backlog of evidence kits from cases of sexual assault. Lawmakers last year approved a bill requiring law enforcement to pick up the evidence kits from hospitals within 96 hours and submit to the state for testing within 30 days.

The additions also include $485,000 to start providing video streaming of Senate committee meetings. The House began live-streaming video of its committee meetings in 2006, allowing the public to view the hearings without traveling to the Capitol in Atlanta.

Committee meetings are where the bulk of lawmakers' public discussion on items takes place. Several senators began using smartphones to provide live video of Senate meetings this year, highlighting the chambers' differing approaches.

At Deal's request, House and Senate leaders negotiating final details of the proposal added about $2 million to purchase insurance against cyber-attacks or data breaches for various state agencies.