ATLANTA - Another tax cut for the present and a major infusion of state spending on education for the future are Gov. Roy Barnes' prescriptions for maintaining a prosperous Georgia.
The midyear budget proposal unveiled by the governor Tuesday would continue his multiyear plan to use part of the state's surplus to reduce the property-tax burden on Georgia homeowners. Mr. Barnes also recommended an ambitious education package, highlighted by the largest K-12 school construction program in the state's history,
"In the short term, there is nothing more important ... than continuing the tax cuts that put more money in taxpayers' pockets and more capital in the economy," Mr. Barnes told legislative appropriators at the end of a 20-minute address at the Capitol.
"And for the long haul ... the steps we take to improve the education available to our children and grandchildren are more important than ... everything else we will do here."
Under the third installment of Mr. Barnes' tax-cut plan, which he said will be included in the 2002 budget he will release next week, the state's homestead tax exemption would increase from $15,000 to $20,000 of fair market value. The owner of a $160,000 house, for example, would save $190.20 from a tax bill of $1,771.65.
The midyear budget's education component includes $468 million to build elementary and secondary schools to hold the more than 6,000 additional classrooms that will be needed by 2004 to comply with the smaller class sizes mandated by the education-reform bill Mr. Barnes pushed through the General Assembly last year.
The governor also recommended a series of spending measures to help recruit and retain teachers to staff the new classrooms. He wants $1.8 million to expand the state's scholarship program for teacher's aides who wish to become teachers, $985,000 for forgivable student loans to other aspiring teachers and $290,000 to help underwrite teachers who apply for national certification.
The chief Republican criticism after the Democratic governor's speech was that Mr. Barnes' tax cut isn't enough.
"We've got a $906 million surplus this year," said newly elected House Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg. "That came from the taxpayers of this state. I'd just like to see a little bit more money going back to them."
But Rep. Hinson Mosley, D-Jesup, said it would be difficult to dedicate more of the surplus to tax cuts when such a large chunk of the money is earmarked for school construction.
"If we're going to ask for smaller class sizes, we're going to have to have more buildings," said Mr. Mosley, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Barbara Christmas, executive vice president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teacher organization, praised the governor's proposal to offer more scholarships to teacher's aides, or paraprofessionals, many of whom lost their jobs in the wake of last year's reform bill.
"We think paraprofessionals are a wonderful source for recruiting teachers," she said. "To make that money available for them to go back to school and become certified is very important."
The midyear budget also contains the usual millions of dollars in bonding for building projects and renovations at a host of universities, colleges and technical schools across the state.
Spending proposals primarily of a local or regional focus included $10 million for a series of projects in Augusta aimed at boosting tourism and other forms of economic development, $6 million for design and engineering work at the Port of Savannah, and $5 million for improvements at Jekyll Island's historic district and for the golf course operated by the Jekyll Island Authority.
Mr. Barnes also earmarked $200,000 for a study of voting procedures in Georgia. Secretary of State Cathy Cox is asking for about $1 million to experiment with several electronic-voting systems in the wake of the legal struggle over the presidential results in Florida.
The governor drew laughter from the packed Appropriations Committee room when he described the purpose of the voting expenditure: "Just to make sure we've learned our lesson from our neighbors to the south."
Here is a local breakdown of proposed spending items in Gov. Roy Barnes' midyear budget plan released Tuesday. The budget, which must be approved by the General Assembly, would run through June 30:
Item - Amount
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.
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