published Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Georgia lawmakers agree to $18 billion budget

SHANNON McCAFFREY, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers on Tuesday adopted an $18.3 billion budget that increases health insurance premiums for state employees and slashes funding for the state's college system but scrapes together cash to hire more investigators to go after tax cheats.

The House gave its final approval to the 2012 spending plan by a 143-32 vote. The state Senate approved the blueprint later on a 48-6 vote. The budget covering the fiscal year that begins July 1 now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

Georgia is facing the loss of about $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars, but the state is trying increase some revenue by hiring more investigators and auditors in the state Department of Revenue, which officials say will bring in millions of dollars to state coffers down the road.

Budget writers also ponied up $1 million in state money for domestic violence shelters after advocates complained that Deal's initial proposal to rely exclusively on federal welfare dollars could imperil the ability of shelters to serve single women and to leverage private dollars. The $1 million in state funds comes on top of the $4.4 million in federal money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The state is borrowing Medicaid dollars to help fill a $300 million gap in the state health benefit plan. Still, state employees — hit hard in recent years by unpaid furlough days — will see their premiums rise by at least 10 percent.

Deep cuts to higher education are expected to translate into another tuition hike at the state's public colleges and universities at the same time the state is scaling back the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. The state Board of Regents will consider tuition increase after the legislative session ends.

Budget writers also set aside $4 million for a special session to be held over the summer to redraw congressional and legislative district lines to conform to U.S. Census data.

And it sets aside $18 million toward the first interest payment for the federal money the state borrowed for to keep its unemployment insurance fund afloat.

The budget borrows some $675 million for construction and infrastructure projects, down from the roughly $1 billion a year in bonding put forward by former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Georgia's 40-day legislative session is set to end Thursday.

Lawmakers are required by the state Constitution to pass a budget before they adjourn.

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