Originally created 04/02/02

Senate budget funds commuter rail



ATLANTA - A budget approved Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee would pump millions of dollars into a Macon-to-Atlanta commuter rail system that the governor has said no longer is the state's top rail transportation priority.

The $16.1 billion budget for the year beginning July 1 commits $12 million in tobacco settlement money to be paired with federal matching money of as much as $38 million to push the project along.

But in February, Gov. Roy Barnes said Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns two rail lines between the cities, is asking too steep a price for the rights to one of them.

"I'm not telling you it's not going to happen, but it's going to be a good deal when it does happen," he said at the time.

Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, said including the money in the budget is "a message of support ... Those of us who are in this area wanted to continue to make sure that it's understood we really do want this to happen."

In addition to the rail money, Senate budget writers added $4.7 million worth of legislative pet projects to the spending measure. Combined with $9.8 million added previously by the House, that leaves lawmakers with $13.5 million worth of election-year goodies to take home. However, that's substantially below last year's $22 million.

Leaders of both chambers had said they intended to reduce funding for special projects because of the state's slowing economy.

This year's project funding ranges from $3,000 for museum equipment in Paulding County to $125,000 for the renovation of an apartment building at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. In between are projects to buy fire trucks for communities, renovate county government offices, light ball fields and construct dugouts.

Like the House budget version, the Senate's saves a foreign language program in elementary schools from the governor's budget knife and softens cuts he proposed for library materials purchases.

Both versions endorse the governor's proposed pay raises of 3.25 percent for teachers and 2.25 percent for state employees. State officials, including lawmakers, will not receive raises.

Republicans on the committee tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill, losing both attempts. One amendment, proposed by Sen. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, would have cut the budgets of almost every agency by half a percent, or $47.2 million, to provide an extra pay boost for experienced teachers who stop receiving automatic longevity increases after their 19th year.