Originally created 01/22/06

Perdue's budget plan has few changes from last year



ATLANTA - Tucked into the budget proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue is a small item that hasn't drawn a lot of attention.

But an increase in the personal allowance that some nursing home residents receive could mean a lot to those seniors who qualify, said Vicky Peel, the administrator of Kentwood Nursing Facility in Augusta.

Kentwood provides some toiletries and the like, Ms. Peel said. But other items - such as a bathrobe or a trip to the beauty shop - have to come from the residents' allowances.

"They use their own personal money to purchase little things that they want as well," Ms. Peel said.

The nursing home allowance increase, which would cost the state a little more than $1 million, is one of the many small-bore, populist measures that have made it easier for supporters of Mr. Perdue to lavish praise on his 2007 budget and more difficult for opponents to attack the spending blueprint.

"Overall, I think he's got a pretty good budget," said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus. "It needs to be fine-tuned."

The proposal has to work its way through the General Assembly, which will spend the next few weeks poring over the numbers.

AMONG THE NEARLY $1 billion in new education funding proposed by Mr. Perdue is a major switch from past years: a requirement that school districts live up to the smaller class sizes bankrolled by the state.

In the past, school systems could allow some classes to have as many as two students more than permitted, but districts still had to keep the average number of students in all classes within the law.

Now, Mr. Perdue has pumped $163 million into an initiative he calls "Truth in Class Size," which would require school districts to meet the standards in all classrooms from kindergarten through the eighth grade.

But school administrators say the requirement sounds a lot easier than it is. System officials say it could cause administrative nightmares if all the eighth-grade classes in a school were filled to capacity and another eighth-grader moves into the district.

In that case, classes might have to be broken up, Oglethorpe County Superintendent Jeff Welch said.

But the governor and State Superintendent Kathy Cox say flexibility is already built into the formula. For example, while the state requires eighth-grade classes to have no more than 28 students, it actually funds more teachers in each district than required to meet the standard.

Ms. Cox characterized the governor's message to the systems as: "Don't get funding for 24 (in a class), stack them all with 28, then want to go over the 28."

Meanwhile, Mr. Perdue has stirred up a minor controversy by picking and choosing from the construction priority lists drawn up by the University System of Georgia and the Department of Technical and Adult Education. Those lists give the two agencies' preferences for doling out millions of dollars in construction funds for big-ticket buildings.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said he's not surprised by the shuffling of the lists.

"The governor's always said that he reserves the right to prioritize that," Mr. Keen said.

But even some Republicans seem uneasy that, after years of asking for agencies to provide the lists, state officials are picking and choosing.

"If we're going to ask them to do that, it has to be a rare instance for us to skip around on the priority list," said House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin, R-Evans.

FOR MOST LAWMAKERS, and occasionally the budget process itself, the show-stopper is money for local projects commonly known as "pork."

Last year, $3.5 million allocated by the House for 45 local projects became a major flash point between the two chambers.

Most of the projects ended up in the final version of the budget.

This year, the House and Senate have agreed to allow a committee of lawmakers from the two chambers to hold hearings on the projects to choose the most deserving ones. Mr. Harbin and his Senate counterpart, Republican Jack Hill of Reidsville, said the money spent this year on local projects probably will be in the neighborhood of this year's allowance.