ATLANTA -- Gov. Nathan Deal is so optimistic about the economy and future tax receipts that he’s reversing the trend of state budget cuts and proposing slightly higher spending in the next fiscal year. That could mean a few more state dollars for Middle Georgia projects.
Deal recommends state spending of $19.2 billion in the year that ends June 30, 2013. That’s up from $18.5 billion for the year that ends this June.
The proposal adds 10 days to the pre-K school calendar, restoring half of the 20 days cut last year. He wants to shift just more than $1 billion to Georgia’s universities and colleges to fund projected growth. There’s about $46 million for deepening the Port of Savannah so it can serve newer, bigger ships. Deal suggests the same amount for building water reservoirs.
Alan Essig, executive director of the nonpartisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, called the draft “the best budget we’ve seen in years.”
However, Essig also called it a “conservative” budget.
“We seem to have bottomed out of the (economic) crisis,” he said, but the draft “doesn’t do anything dramatic about replacing the billions that have been cut.”
State spending hit a peak of $21.2 billion in fiscal 2009.
Essig said it looks like the budget has a couple of holes, including the state Medicaid program possibly being short about $90 million for the upcoming fiscal year. And though Deal proposes funding projected growth in both Georgia’s university and technical college system, he claws back a portion of that spending below the headline figures.
And despite a rise in K-12 education spending, Essig pointed out that starting this fall, schools will operate without $320 million in federal stimulus dollars that helped float them for the past two years.
Deal proposes putting $20 million toward rural job creation in the next 18 months. That’s how much he wants for the OneGeorgia Authority, a state body that makes grants and loans to grow or attract rural businesses. The authority wasn’t budgeted for any state money for the fiscal year ending this June, but Deal is asking for a midyear correction.
A total $1.5 million grant from OneGeorgia spent on site preparation a few years ago helped woo the Bass Pro Shops distribution center to Bibb County, for example. Nearly $600,000 was spent in the same way to help lure the regional headquarters of Little League baseball to Warner Robins.
The state also starts paying rent this year for the Riverbend Correctional Facility, the new private prison in Baldwin County. It’s lumped with another facility in a $35 million appropriation. The Baldwin lockup creates somewhere between 250 and 300 jobs, said state Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, at an annual payroll of $10 million to $11 million dollars.
Mercer University’s Macon campus is proposed for a cut in state funding. Deal wants to reduce the state appropriation for the Mercer medical program that trains the kinds of doctors who are in short supply in rural areas, like family medicine and pediatric doctors. He’s looking for a cut of some $417,000, bringing the grant down to about $19.8 million. About 58 percent of Mercer medical graduates in 2011 went into those high-demand fields.
Though the governor’s draft is more than 460 pages long, not every project he wants to fund is spelled out.
It’s not yet clear if Deal recommends the $7 million to $11 million that Houston County leaders are seeking to help buy property in Robins Air Force Base’s encroachment area. The Department of Defense wants an area adjacent to the base cleared of homes due to crash risk and noise. The land possibly could be turned over to industrial use, perhaps meaning a return on investment. The total bill will come to something between $20 million and $30 million, most to be paid by local governments.
House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, said he will know more about the request after a budget briefing with the governor’s staff Thursday.
O’Neal’s also trying again for state money to finance expansion of Middle Georgia Technical College’s health industry offerings. Last year, when Deal proposed a tighter budget, he vetoed financing the design of a proposed Health Services Center for the school. Deal turned down several similar allocations in favor of projects that were shovel-ready.
Deal’s budget details a portion of the $700 million in projects he suggests should be financed via bonds. There are details on about $9 million worth of repairs or renovations at several midstate facilities, including Middle Georgia Technical College, Sandersville Technical College, the Georgia War Veterans Home in Milledgeville and the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Monroe County.
Though Deal’s budget is technically just a suggestion, it sets the tone for debate and lets the governor’s priorities be known. In the coming weeks, the state House of Representatives will draft its own budget, followed by the state Senate. The two chambers must settle their differences and pass a budget before the legislative session ends, probably by mid-April.