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Georgia House advances budget with pay raises for teachers and state workers

Pay raises for Georgia public school teachers and state employees took a step forward Tuesday, as the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

The budget would spend $36.1 billion in state money and $66.5 billion overall, including federal and other funds. The full House will vote on the measure on Thursday, with Senate debate to follow.

Spending would actually fall after lawmakers amended this year's budget to sharply increase outlays. After Gov. Brian Kemp signed the amended spending plan last week, Georgia will have spent $38 billion in state revenue and $68 billion overall in the year ending June 30.

Public school teachers would get a $2,500 raise beginning July 1, boosting average teacher pay in Georgia above $65,000 annually, as the Republican governor proposed in January. That’s in addition to a $1,000 bonus Kemp sent out in December, a move lawmakers ratified when they amended the current budget. State and university employees also would get a 4% pay increase, up to $70,000 in salary. The typical state employee makes $50,400.

Combined, that’s more than $600 million in pay raises. Teachers previously received $7,000 in raises during Kemp’s first five years in office.

Some employees would be singled out for more. State law enforcement officers would get an additional $3,000 bump, atop the $6,000 special boost they got last year. Child welfare workers would also receive extra $3,000 raises.

Many judges would also get a raise under the plan. The House proposes spending more than $10 million to implement half of a plan to raise and standardize judicial pay, with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett saying the second half would come next year. The plan would link top pay for judges to what federal judges in Atlanta make. State Supreme Court justices could see their pay rise from $186,000 to more than $223,000, while Court of Appeals judges could see their pay rise from $185,000 now to $212,000.

Right now, superior court judges make between $154,000 and $222,000 a year based on differing amounts counties contribute in Georgia's 50 judicial circuits. Under the proposed system, the state would pay superior court judge as much as $201,000, while counties could add a 10% locality supplement, bringing total pay to $221,000.

Because lawmakers can’t spend above Kemp’s revenue estimate, lawmakers can only cut or rearrange the governor’s proposed spending. In this case, the House cut money from sources including debt service and construction projects that it funded in the amended budget to propose higher spending on health care, mental health care, and aid to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The state would spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to increase what it pays to nursing homes, people who provide home health care, dialysis providers, physical and occupational therapists, and some physicians. Most increases were proposed by Kemp, but some were added by the House.

Committee Chairman Hatchett said rate increases were needed to keep reimbursements “where our providers will continue to provide the service.”

Adults who get health insurance from Georgia's Medicaid program would get basic dental care covered for the first time, at a cost of $9 million in state money, or $28 million once federal money is included.

The House proposed spending $21 million more on domestic violence shelters and sexual assault response. Some of those agencies face big cuts in their federal funding. Hatchett said the money doesn't directly offset the federal funds but said the state needs to pay for services that it mandates.

“We’re trying to make sure that what we mandate they do, we’re giving them the monies to be able to do that," he said.

House lawmakers would spend $6.33 million to provide free breakfast and lunch at public schools to children who currently pay reduced prices, but who aren't judged poor enough to qualify for free meals.

The budget also affirms Kemp's plan to spend $104 million on school security and $205 million to boost the state's share of buying and operating school buses. Representatives are also backing a plan to reverse a longstanding budget cut to the Department of Early Care and Learning, pulling prekindergarten class sizes back down to 20 children after years at 22.