ATLANTA — Georgia would spend $300 million on a toll highway meant to alleviate congestion in metro Atlanta and assist farmers who say they are struggling to find enough workers following the state’s crackdown on illegal immigrants under an $18.6 billion budget plan proposed Thursday by House lawmakers.
Total state spending would increase just over 1 percent under the plan adopted by the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee. It makes relatively small changes to a proposal earlier this month from Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. House lawmakers could pass their amended plan as soon as Friday.
Republican leaders have been reluctant to seriously increase spending despite rising tax collections over the past year-and-a-half. A sharp increase in oil prices, a European recession or currency crisis, and the potential for federal spending cuts could still hamper Georgia’s tepid economic recovery and reduce the state’s spending money, said Rep. Terry England, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Transportation funding would get a boost in the plan proposed by House lawmakers. It would earmark about $300 million for a toll highway called the Northwest Corridor, which is designed to alleviate congestion on Interstates 75 and 575 in metro Atlanta.
The plan, backed by Deal in his State of the State speech, would cost roughly $1 billion. The extra transportation funding would be made possible by a one-time tapping of motor fuel taxes from earlier years. England said that money cannot be used to fund other areas of state government, such as Georgia’s education system that has absorbed more than $1 billion in cuts.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black’s department would get $75,000 to pay for state liaisons who would help farmers find laborers using a federal guest worker program that grants visas to foreigners willing to work in the agricultural sector.
Last year, the General Assembly passed a law cracking down on illegal immigrants, including many Hispanics who harvest labor-intensive fruit and vegetable crops. Farmers have since said they cannot find enough field hands, costing them millions of dollars in losses.
The law requires businesses with 500 or more employees use a federal database called E-Verify to check whether their new hires are allowed to legally work in the country. That requirement will gradually expand until it includes companies with 10 or more employees by July 2013. It also makes it a felony crime with serious penalties to use false information or documents when applying for a job. In June, a federal judge blocked other parts of the law pending a legal challenge from immigrant rights and civil liberties groups.
Recent surveys conducted by Black’s office showed many farmers were either unaware of the federal guest worker program or said they found it too cumbersome for their businesses.
Black said he wants the new liaisons to help farmers apply for workers in time for the upcoming spring harvest.
“Hopefully, it will allow us to move pretty quickly, so we’d have someone available this spring to be able to help,” Black said.
The House budget plan would also:
• Add $35,000 to fund new staff at the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates misconduct by judges. Deal had proposed a $53,000 increase.
• Cut $200,000 for business assistance grants run by the Department of Community Affairs.
• Restore grants for the Mercer School of Medicine, the Morehouse School of Medicine and increase the funding available to repay the student debt of doctors who commit to working in rural areas.
• Restore funding for three Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents.
Democratic lawmakers generally supported the plan, said Rep. Stacey Abrams, the party’s minority leader in the House. She did not anticipate trying to amend it on Friday.
“It’s the first year in recent memory that they’ve come close to funding key initiatives, the investment in education funding we appreciate,” Abrams said.
Georgia lawmakers have not yet addressed Deal’s spending plan for the coming fiscal year.