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Georgia House OK's $44.6B state budget, keeping insurance for part-time school employees

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ATLANTA — A $44.6 billion state budget approved Thursday by the Georgia House would narrow past cuts to public education spending, cut funding for low-interest student loans and ask local school districts to make $103 million more in employer contributions to keep state insurance coverage for some part-time school employees.

The last item goes against Gov. Nathan Deal's recommendation to eliminate state insurance coverage altogether for the part-time school workers such as school bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

The 171-2 vote sends the budget plan to the Senate. Any changes made by senators would have to be reconciled before the 40-day session ends. Deal then can sign, reject or make changes to the plan.

Deal's budget staff expects tax revenue to grow more than 4 percent during the next financial year starting July 1. About $21.7 billion of the total proposed budget comes from Georgia's revenues. The rest largely is federal money.

House leadership left much of Deal's recommended budget untouched, including adding $280 million back to public school spending. The total remains about $500 million short of what the state's funding formula recommends. The budget also includes funding for new or expanded education programs at the state's prisons, aimed at helping inmates earn a degree or develop technical skills while serving time.

The lawmakers also gave judges on the Supreme and Appeals courts a $12,000 salary boost and maintained a $23 million bond for a parking deck near the new Atlanta Falcons stadium downtown.

Deal's request to fund 278 new caseworkers to investigate complaints of abused or neglected children and 11 caseworkers to investigate elder abuse remains in the plan.

But House lawmakers did not follow the governor's recommendation to eliminate part-time school employees from the state's insurance plan. Deal has called the proposal an issue of fairness because other part-time state employees are not covered, but it quickly became controversial.

"We feel like there is a vital role these individuals play in transporting and caring for our students," House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, said this week.

Instead, lawmakers shifted the responsibility for employer contributions to local school districts. The change is estimated to cost local school districts about $103 million.

The House made cuts to a low interest student loan program that Deal wanted to increase. England said some for-profit institutions "may game the system" and had high default rates on those loans.

The House plan also offers less funding for new staff at the state's ethics commission. Tasked with enforcing campaign and ethics laws, auditors said the commission failed to consider a single complaint for a year and a half.

England said the commission has begun addressing its backlog of complaints and lawmakers felt additional two attorneys and two investigators were sufficient.


Associated Press reporter Ray Henry contributed.

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