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Georgia House backs midyear update to state budget with money for behavioral health, elections

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Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
February 7, 2024

House lawmakers signed off the governor’s plans to infuse the budget with nearly $2 billion in one-time cash while making their own spending boosts to behavioral health services, election administration and the state’s prisons.

But they didn’t do so without first acknowledging the long list of legislative changes that were undone with the stroke of the governor’s pen last year. Concerned about a potential economic downturn, Gov. Brian Kemp directed state agencies to disregard more than 130 budget line items that totaled more than $200 million.

Some of the lawmakers’ spending priorities, like hiring additional staff for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab to help address a backlog, were later funded or repurposed. Others are being restored now as lawmakers comb through the governor’s proposed revisions for this year’s budget, which runs through the end of June.

But some of their spurned spending priorities will have to wait for the next budget, said Rep. Matt Hatchett, a Dublin Republican who is the chamber’s top budget writer.

“We are the appropriators,” Hatchett said Wednesday. “And we absolutely have the authority under the Georgia Constitution in setting policy in this state, and the budget is the most direct way we do that.

“We will continue to use the budget in FY 25 to reflect and restate the priorities of this house and the people we represent,” he added.

Kemp unveiled his spending plans last month, calling for pay boosts for teachers, police officers and other state employees and proposing to spend $1.9 billion of the $11 billion undesignated surplus on one-time projects. The state also has $5 billion socked away in a rainy-day fund.

The governor has proposed a $37.5 billion amended budget for the current year, which is a $5 billion spending jump from the original budget. But he has proposed a $36.1 billion spending plan for the new budget year that starts in July, citing signs of a revenue slowdown.

“You can do a lot of good with $5 billion,” Hatchett said, referring to the governor’s multibillion infusion into the current budget. “Not every item in this budget is glamorous but I can tell you that it’s needed.”

The governor sets the spending level for the budgets, so lawmakers can only move money around in the budget. But even with those constraints on spending, lawmakers find ways to leave their mark.

For example, the continued sharp decline in Medicaid enrollment because of the end of a pandemic-era federal protection of health care coverage freed up another $28 million in state funds for lawmakers to allocate. All said, Georgia is set to spend $181 million less on Medicaid this year while also losing hundreds of millions of dollars more in matching federal funds.

As for new spending, House lawmakers shifted more money toward the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. Specifically, $2 million will fund a pilot program to test transportation alternatives for people having a mental health crisis as well as $664,000 for an additional 30-bed jail-based competency restoration project in Dodge County and $500,000 to expand mental health services in Warner Robins.

The House proposal puts $5 million toward third-party ballot-text auditing technology to sidestep the QR codes that have become controversial and $110,000 to add watermarks to all paper ballots, which supporters say is designed to improve election security. The House has already passed a bill that would require the watermark on ballots.

Another $1.7 million would cover the cost of postage to inform voters of their new precinct after last year’s court-ordered redistricting do-over.

And House lawmakers added another $4 million to a pilot project to disable cell phones that are snuck into the state’s prisons, bringing the total for that effort up to nearly $10 million. That project will initially focus on the four prisons where the contraband cell phone problem is the worst.

“We’re going to do a test this year to see if we can shut that down but it’s pretty expensive,” Rep. Bill Hitchens, a Rincon Republican who chairs the budget subcommittee focused on public safety, said Tuesday.

The amended budget easily cleared the House Wednesday with a 161-to-2 vote and now moves over to the Senate for more changes. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.