Georgia Senate OKs $49 billion budget, cuing up House talks

ATLANTA (AP) - The Georgia Senate on Wednesday backed a 2 percent raise for teachers and other state employees in the coming year, part of a $49 billion budget proposal.

The Senate largely agreed with recommendations from Gov. Nathan Deal, but did make some changes to a version of the budget approved last month by the House. Wednesday's unanimous Senate vote sets up negotiations with the House to hash out differences in the two proposals.

Big-ticket items have been uncontroversial this year, including a 19 percent raise for state employees who oversee child welfare cases and the continuation of 20 percent raises for state law enforcement, including those with the Georgia State Patrol and Bureau of Investigation.

State Sen. Jack Hill, who chairs the chamber's budget-writing committee, said the salary increases are targeted to agencies that struggle to keep employees in "critical career fields." The salary increases for child welfare, for instance, are "so critical to the protection of children," Hill said.

"The more turnover you have, the more danger it puts children in because of inexperienced workers," he said.

The plan also includes more than $1 billion to finance construction projects around the state, including for local schools and colleges, a new crime lab in Savannah and completion of a new campus for Lanier Technical College in Hall County.

A state budget is the only piece of legislation that lawmakers are constitutionally required to approve each year.

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.

Among the Senate's budget changes is $485,000 to provide live video streaming of its committee meetings.

"That's an initiative that was studied by the leadership and we made a decision to move ahead," said Hill, R-Reidsville. "We'll have it implemented by session next year."

The House began live-streaming video of its committee meetings in 2006. Several senators began using smartphones to provide live video of Senate meetings this year, highlighting the chambers' differing approaches.