Originally created 02/28/01

Air study will continue



ATLANTA - The Georgia Senate gave final approval to the midyear budget Tuesday, even as Republicans accused Gov. Roy Barnes of sweetening the pot for lawmakers who voted to change the state flag and punishing those who didn't.

In a 35-20 vote primarily along party lines, senators adopted a compromise hammered out last weekend by a half-dozen House and Senate conferees. The House had voted 145-23 on Monday to approve the spending plan.

The midyear budget increases taxpayer spending for the fiscal year ending June 30 by about 5.6 percent, or $800 million, to about $15.2 billion.

The latest flap in what has been a politically charged budget process involved changes made during the weekend negotiations. Some GOP lawmakers who saw spending items they had requested for their districts suddenly drop out of the budget accused Mr. Barnes of punishing them for opposing his successful push last month to shrink the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia flag.

"It obviously was a slap in the cheek for the flag vote," said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, who lost $300,000 that had been earmarked for the purchase of equipment for the fire departments in Pooler and Garden City.

"The flag vote cost the people back home and the Georgia Ports Authority (which is served by the Garden City Fire Department) a ladder truck they desperately need," Mr. Stephens said.

"This remains politics at its worst," added Senate Minority Whip Tom Price, R-Roswell. "Using the budgetary process to reward friends and to punish others ... is repulsive."

But Joselyn Butler, the governor's spokeswoman, said Mr. Barnes did not change his approach to the budget because of the flag vote.

"The process is going along this year just as it does every year," she said. "The governor's recommendations are often changed. What ultimately passes is the decision of the General Assembly."

Rep. Burke Day, R-Tybee Island, who voted for the flag change, secured $450,000 from the governor during the weekend negotiations for beach renourishment on the northern end of the island. But he said he resented implications that he cut a deal with Mr. Barnes on the flag issue.

"I wouldn't do it for $450,000. I wouldn't do it for $2 million," Mr. Day said. "This is personally an insult to anybody who voted for (the flag change)."

Other projects also surfaced in the budget for the first time during the work by the conferees, including a $500,000 planning grant for the redevelopment of Savannah's Cuyler Brownsville neighborhood, $375,000 to continue a study of air quality in Augusta, Macon and Columbus, and $450,000 in bonds to build a new road inside the campus of Coastal Georgia Community College.

The conference committee also boosted funding for 34 "critical-access" hospitals in rural Georgia to just more than $1 million, up from the $375,000 that had been provided by the Senate.

Other last-minute adds included nearly $1.5 million in emergency aid primarily for drought relief, $100,000 to restore an oil portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee for display in the Capitol and $281,000 to buy 16,000 of the new state flags to be flown outside state and local government buildings and schools.

The Port of Savannah held on to $6 million in bonds, which had been threatened at one point during the conference-committee talks. The money will go to design an additional berth for large cargo ships.

Speculation among lawmakers was that legislative leaders floated the idea of taking the money out of the budget to stir the local business community into taking a stand against a proposed privately run port across the Savannah River in South Carolina.

The additional bonds tucked into the midyear budget by lawmakers during the review process added $713.4 million to the state's debt, well above the $588.1 million requested by the governor, a development criticized by Republicans during both the House and Senate floor debates this week.

But Sen. George Hooks, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said much of the increase is for projects related to education, economic development and transportation, all top state priorities. Mr. Hooks, D-Americus, also argued that Georgia's debt load per capita of $790 is well below most Southern states.

"Sure, we're borrowing money," he said. "But we've got the ability to pay it back, and look what we're spending it on."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.