Originally created 02/23/01

Senators OK $340 million in spending



ATLANTA - Ignoring warnings from Republicans of a looming economic downturn, the Democratic-controlled Georgia Senate passed a midyear budget Thursday that contains nearly $340 million in new spending, not including Gov. Roy Barnes' $468 million school construction program.

Voting 33-22 nearly along party lines, senators sent the spending plan to a likely conference committee to work out differences with the version passed by the House two weeks ago.

The midyear budget would boost taxpayer spending for the fiscal year ending June 30 by $804.5 million or about 6 percent, increasing the budget for the full year to about $15.3 billion.

Highlights include $8 million for drought relief, $38 million from the national tobacco settlement to launch the governor's cancer initiative and $42 million to help cover a deficit in the Medicaid program.

The Senate also earmarked $1.1 million for DNA testing of prison inmates, twice the amount in the House midyear budget, and added $725,000 to increase reimbursements to financially strapped urban and rural hospitals.

But Republican senators argued the General Assembly should respond to the current economic climate by reining in spending, not by appropriating nearly 90 percent of the state's $973 million surplus.

Sen. Sonny Perdue, R-Bonaire, cited the financial crises plaguing government coffers in most of Georgia's neighboring states, budget deficits ranging from $130 million in Tennessee to $606 million in North Carolina.

"Look at the sea of red around us," he said. "Do you think that Georgia is immune? Do you think that we are not capable in Georgia of having a budget downturn?"

Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson saved his harshest words for the process the Legislature uses to decide which local-assistance grants, known by critics as "pork projects," make it into the budget.

"It seems to be nothing more than a political machine designed to reward friends and punish enemies," said Mr. Johnson, R-Savannah. "Some senators probably ought to show it on their campaign-finance disclosure forms as contributions, particularly those from the Augusta area," a veiled reference to powerful Majority Leader Charles Walker.

Augusta landed one of the largest local plums in the midyear budget, $10 million for projects designed to increase tourism and other forms of economic development.

Mr. Walker, D-Augusta, responded by taking to the Senate floor and ticking off one by one a list of $24.7 million worth of projects in the budget that would benefit Savannah.

"That's the kind of Georgia we have," he said. "Every city, every community will get their fair share of this budget because we do not want Atlanta ... to receive all of the $15 billion."

Senators rejected four Republican-backed amendments, also primarily along party lines, including a bid by Mr. Johnson to cut $4.7 million from the midyear budget by reducing each of five funding categories by 1 percent. Travel and telecommunications expenses were among the targets.

Another amendment would have shifted $250,000 from several programs to allow the state Department of Public Safety to hire 50 driver's license examiners. Public Safety Commissioner Robert Hightower has complained to lawmakers that he doesn't have enough examiners to comply with a bill passed by the Senate that would mandate road tests for new drivers.

Sen. George Hooks, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Georgia's economy remains strong in spite of what's happening to neighboring states.

Mr. Hooks, D-Americus, praised Mr. Barnes for increasing the state's reserves, the so-called "rainy-day fund" from 3 percent to 4 percent of the annual budget, a move he said should cushion Georgia from the impacts of any weakening in the economy.

The Senate will take up the governor's school construction initiative early next week. The House approved the program Tuesday.

Local Breakdown

Here is a local breakdown of proposed spending items in the 2001 mid-year budget adopted by the Georgia Senate Thursday. The spending plan now goes to a conference committee to work out differences with the House version:

Item..........................................Amount

Classroom-replacement project at Augusta State University.......$18.9 million

Local assistance grants for Augusta projects to boost tourism and economic development......$10 million*

Repair, modernization and resurfacing work at Augusta Youth Development Campus......$2.3 million

Various projects at Augusta Veterans Home.....$1.5 million

Match federal funds for 61 positions and operating costs for the new Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon.....$1.1 million

Buy equipment for Aviation Maintenance program at Augusta Technical College....$1 million

Operating expenses for city of Augusta's FORE! program......$250,000

Legal expenses associated with lawsuit between Georgia, South Carolina and Army Corps of Engineers over pump-storage operations at Richard B. Russell Dam.....$100,000

Funds for Augusta Children's Advocacy Center.....$100,000 #

*the Senate earmarked $100,000 of the $10 million specifically for the Augusta Mini Theater, compared to $1 million set aside for it by the House

#added by the Senate

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.