published Friday, February 27th, 2009

Georgia House passes midyear budget

By Shannon McCaffrey

The Associated Press

ATLANTA — The Georgia House on Thursday passed a midyear budget of nearly $19 billion that includes money for new food safety inspectors sought after a nationwide salmonella outbreak was traced to products made at a peanut plant in the southern part of the state.

Georgia’s economy has been ravaged by the recession, and plummeting tax revenues have forced legislators to hack some $2.6 billion in state spending to close the budget gap.

The budget adopted 168-5 by House lawmakers uses hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money to soften the blow of deep spending and covers the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Included is $40,000 through the end of the fiscal year for new inspectors that lawmakers and others clamored for after salmonella-contaminated peanut products made at a Blakely plant were linked to most of the 600 illnesses and perhaps nine deaths in the outbreak.

The budget that moves onto the Senate for approval also restores some of the money cut from popular programs such as Meals on Wheels for seniors and shifts funds to keep Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime labs open. It cobbles together $428 million to pay for the homeowner tax relief grants that already had been promised to property owners.

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But the spending plan cuts $6 million for local assistance grants, money lawmakers covet for projects in their districts.

“In the environment we’re in we have to make tough choices,” said state Rep. Ben Harbin, chairman of the House Appropriations committee.

The budget counts on $477 million in extra Medicaid money through the federal stimulus bill. Gov. Sonny Perdue said Wednesday that $339 of that already has arrived in state coffers from Washington.

It also uses $145 million in federal stimulus dollars to help offset cuts to schools.

Democrats praised the federal dollars from the Obama administration with saving the state from having to avoid painful cuts that would harm the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

“People are really hurting when it comes to services we provide in state government,” state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said.

House budget writers will now turn their attention to the spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

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