House, Senate leaders agree to budget plan with $100 million in coronavirus funding

Georgia House and Senate leaders reached a deal Wednesday on a midyear budget that restores funding for everything from county public health grants to food inspectors and adds $100 million that Gov. Brian Kemp requested to fight the coronavirus. 

Kemp asked lawmakers to add the $100 million only hours before the budget deal was signed. He said the money would go to assist the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Public Health in their response efforts.

Lawmakers also added $5 million extra in the budget for rural hospitals, which they said may face special costs associated with the virus.

The House and Senate will likely give final approval to the mid-year budget, which runs through June 30, on Thursday.

Lawmakers pushed back on many of the spending cuts Kemp proposed that would impact small-town Georgia, a key constituency in a chamber largely run by lawmakers from outside metro Atlanta.

Kemp ordered state agencies in August to prepare plans for 4% budget cuts this fiscal year and 6% next year to both respond to slow tax collections last year and provide enough money for the governor’s priorities, including a $2,000 teacher pay raise and his effort to attack gangs.

The House voted Tuesday to reduce that raise to $1,000 as part of the budget for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

About three-fourths of the budget — money that goes to k-12 schools, colleges, the health program Medicaid and transportation — was exempted from reductions.

The House and Senate agreed to mitigate some of the cuts Kemp recommended.

The midyear budget would still cut $159 million in spending and leave 1,255 vacant positions unfilled, but the House and Senate rearranged how reductions would be made.

Kemp’s proposal to eliminate vacant state positions was controversial, with lawmakers saying some of them — including crime lab scientists and guards in the juvenile justice system — need to be filled.

The deal agreed to Wednesday restores funding for some of the positions, including public defenders, lab workers and Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors.

Both chambers rejected Kemp’s proposal to cut funding to accountability courts. The courts, which were greatly expanded by his predecessor, allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, get treatment, receive an education and find a job. The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunken drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who’ve been charged largely with nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses, and they have been highly popular with lawmakers.

Both chambers said no to Kemp’s cuts in funding for preparing doctors at the Morehouse School of Medicine and Mercer University’s medical school, and to his proposed reduction to the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer, a project lawmakers started a few years ago to help improve health care in rural Georgia.

They also reduced cuts that Kemp proposed for mental health programs and eliminated reductions for local library materials, and pushed back on Kemp’s proposal to cut $6.3 million in grants to county public health departments.

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