Money for new dentistry school is cut

ATLANTA - A midyear budget eliminating funds for a new School of Dentistry at the Medical College of Georgia and filling a shortfall in the PeachCare program passed the Senate on Tuesday, even as a spending standoff with the House threatened to force a special session.


The Senate plan for the fiscal year ending June 30, approved on a 50-0 vote, would cut a House proposal to devote $5 million in design funding to MCG's proposed new School of Dentistry building, the first step for a project that is expected to cost more than $100 million. The Senate also would remove $1.5 million for six community health centers, including one to be opened in Augusta, and $300,000 for the Golf Hall of Fame Authority.

Proposals that would have revived two of the Augusta-area initiatives have been rebuffed. For example, a compromise idea exchanged between House and Senate leaders would have given the Golf Hall of Fame $150,000, but those negotiations broke down over the weekend.

And the Senate, on a 32-2 vote Tuesday, turned back a proposal by Sen. J.B. Powell, D-Blythe, to put the design funding for MCG back into the upper chamber's midyear budget.

Senate leaders made it clear they don't intend to back down in negotiations with the House over whether the projects should be funded.

"The questions we're going to be asking of the House ... (are) is it critical, is it an emergency or is it constitutional?" said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville.

In lieu of the House projects, the Senate plan would put $20 million in the state's reserves and then essentially shift money to the next fiscal year by paying down $181.2 million of state debt - which would free up other money in the spending year beginning July 1.

There are a few points of agreement between the chambers, including providing $81 million to save the joint state-federal PeachCare health insurance program for low- and middle-income children.

The budget is the first of two the Legislature passes every year. One revises the budget for the last few months of the spending year that ends June 30, and the other covers the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The wrangling between the House and the Senate threatens to throw the General Assembly into a special session. Both sides agree that the House would need to pass the budget for the coming fiscal year by Thursday to reach House Speaker Glenn Richardson's deadline for an April 20 adjournment.

Mr. Richardson, R-Hiram, announced his ultimatum Tuesday in a speech to the House. In addition to saying that he didn't want the session to run past the end of next week, the speaker said he wanted agreement on the 2007 budget today in order for the House to take up the 2008 budget on Thursday.

"That's how it works - seven comes before eight," Mr. Richardson said.

His office also released a set of weekend exchanges between Mr. Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who heads the Senate, dealing with the budget. The exchange ended after a proposal from Mr. Cagle that would fund Gov. Sonny Perdue's requests for the midyear spending plan and allow the House and Senate to each devote $30 million to projects of their choosing.

Mr. Richardson then cut off the discussion.

"At this point, in light of the suggestions contained in your letter it appears that you and I may somewhat be circumventing the conference committee process," he wrote in a letter dated Monday.

A meeting of a House-Senate conference committee to begin negotiations on the midyear budget was set for late Tuesday.

House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin, R-Evans, said a standoff could still be avoided, though he said he was nervous about the possibility of a special session.

"Everyone's got to play fair, and everyone's got to quit playing games," he said.

In a statement issued shortly after Mr. Richardson's speech, Mr. Cagle said the onus was on the House to avoid legislative overtime.

"We also call on the House leadership to pass the FY2008 budget by Thursday, so that we are not forced to return in special session in order to pass a budget," the lieutenant governor said. "I encourage the House leadership to choose the responsible course of action."