Originally created 01/17/97

Governor reveals $11.8 billion state budget



ATLANTA - Late-blooming students would get a second shot at free college tuition, and high schools would get millions to shrink their class sizes, under an $11.8 billion spending plan offered by the governor Thursday.

Gov. Zell Miller called the budget request "a forced march to reality" because it saves $350 million by cutting or abolishing programs - some of them politically popular and likely to prompt an outcry.

"This march has not been an exercise for the timid and faint-hearted.°.°. But we have discovered that tightening the belt is great for focusing the mind," Miller told a joint session of the House and Senate.

Locally, the package includes $4.6 million for a pediatrics lab at the Medical College of Georgia and $5 million to renovate the central utility plant at Augusta State University.

The budget would carry out Miller's plan to speed up federally mandated welfare curbs, changing public assistance into a temporary, short-term program available only to U.S. citizens.

Continuing his quest to turn over government services to private contractors, Miller asked the General Assembly to privatize 22 halfway-house detention centers, cutting 562 jobs from the state payroll.

That follows the Christmastime announcement that 235 prison teachers are being replaced by contract workers and video technology.

In all, the 1997-98 budget would abolish 3,300 state jobs, although hundreds of those are now unfilled and wouldn't require firing anyone.

The budget represents only a slight increase over the ongoing 1996-97 spending plan, which runs until June 30.

"I'm real impressed that there's only roughly $400 million in new spending considering the economy's growth and compared to the past ten years," said Rep. Robin Williams, an Augusta Republican. "This is a really fiscally conservative budget.

"This budget is really trimmed down. The governor has really shrunk the fat," Williams said.

Other legislators, however, were quick to pounce on the details.

Both Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard and House Speaker Tom Murphy promised to resist plans to shut down Brook Run, a 330-bed home for the mentally retarded in Atlanta. The governor wants to send the residents to less expensive day treatment programs in their hometowns.

"Some of those folks, if we take them out of there, they're going to die," said Murphy, D-Bremen. "I don't believe we have any place to put them."

The budget would make it easier for second-chance students to earn lottery-funded HOPE college scholarships.

Currently, a student without the required "B" average in high school can still earn free tuition by making a "B" or better in college for two years. The governor would drop that standard to one year.

The spending plan would divert $40 million out of a controversial subsidy for high school lab classes that auditors say is widely abused. State inspectors found schools merely changing the name of their courses to laboratories, without changing their content, to qualify for more money.

That savings would be plowed into hiring more teachers and building more space to reduce the average high school class size from 23 to 20.

The governor also recommended $37 million in savings to Medicaid, mainly by tighter screening of suspicious claims from health care providers.

To balance those cuts, he asked lawmakers to add $35 million to cover increases in the Medicaid rolls. The program covers the medical bills of about 1 million handicapped and poor people.

Miller is forecasting 4.6 percent growth in the economy, which will help offset the millions lost when the sales tax on food drops by 1 cent in October. The tax is being gradually repealed over three years.

The budget also anticipates a slight slump in Georgia Lottery sales after three years of runaway growth.

Miller budgeted $510 million for the lottery's education programs, down from $546 million in the current budget. Recent figures show sales tailing off for the weekly Lotto Georgia drawing and a slow start for The Big Game, a multi-state drawing.

The budget would add $500 million to the state's debt for construction bonds, with highways, college campuses and technical schools receiving most of the proceeds.