On Tuesday, January 18, my colleagues and I returned to the State Capitol for a highly anticipated “budget week.” Each year, the Georgia General Assembly is required by the state’s Constitution to pass a balanced budget, and the House and Senate typically devote the second week of the legislative session to this very important process. During the budget week, the House and Senate Appropriations committees held a series of joint budget hearings over the course of three days. To kick off the state budget process, Governor Brian Kemp gave opening remarks on Tuesday and presented his formal budget recommendations for the current and upcoming fiscal year budgets. We also heard from the state’s lead fiscal economist and other state agency heads, each of whom provided valuable insight into the vast budgetary needs of our state government.

This session, the House will first consider legislation for the Amended Fiscal Year 2022 (AFY 2022) budget, which will adjust the state’s current budget based on changes in revenue. Next, we will consider the Fiscal Year 2023 (FY 2023) budget, which will go into effect on July 1, 2022, and end on June 30 of the next calendar year. The FY 2023 budget is set at a record revenue estimate of $30.2 billion and includes approximately $3 billion more than the FY 2022 budget, making FY 2023 the largest budget in the state’s history. Throughout the pandemic, the state kept its doors open to doing business and cutting spending, while still providing uninterrupted services to Georgians. As a result of some difficult yet proactive spending decisions that were made over the last two years, the governor and the state economist reported that revenue projections have soared since we first passed the original Fiscal Year 2022 budget. In December 2021, Georgia broke records when unemployment dropped to 2.6 percent and experienced an all-time high of employed individuals. Now, 20 months out from the beginning of the pandemic, more than 97 percent of Georgia jobs lost during the pandemic have been regained, while other states, unfortunately, continue to experience higher unemployment rates.

With these positive economic projections in mind, the governor announced that the state can fully fund its Revenue Shortfall Reserve and has accrued an additional undesignated surplus, which he intends to give back to Georgia taxpayers. Gov. Kemp proposes that the Department of Revenue issue $1.6 billion in tax refunds to every taxpayer in Georgia using funds from this surplus. Under his plan, single tax filers would receive a $250 refund, and those who file jointly would receive a $500 refund once 2021 tax returns are processed by the state.

Education spending remains a top priority for the governor, and this is certainly reflected in each of his budget proposals. In 2019, the General Assembly provided a $3,000 pay increase to Georgia’s public school teachers, and Gov. Kemp’s AFY 2022 and FY 2023 budget proposals include an appropriation to complete his initial goal of providing a $5,000 pay raise to our K-12 teachers, assistant teachers, and pre-k teachers. To ensure our school systems and teachers have the necessary resources to provide quality education to students, the governor’s proposal restores $388 million in both fiscal years to eliminate the austerity cuts that were made at the start of the pandemic. Furthermore, the AFY 2022 and FY 2023 budget proposals collectively add $1.4 billion in direct funding for our K-12 schools and designate more funding per student than ever before. The HOPE scholarship also needs to be adjusted to meet evolving needs and keep pace with rising post-secondary education costs. Therefore, the FY 2023 budget proposal allocates $79 million to fund program growth to allow the HOPE programs to cover at least 90 percent of tuition at the state’s public institutions. Additionally, Kemp’s budget proposal reflects $85 million in higher education formula earnings for the upcoming fiscal year, and his FY 2023 proposal restores more than $271 million in austerity cuts that were previously made to our higher education systems. Restoring these funds would allow the University System of Georgia to remove the statewide special institution fee that was originally implemented due to the Great Recession, and the Technical College System of Georgia would be able to expand its vital health care, manufacturing and commercial truck driving programs without raising tuition. The governor’s budget proposals recognize many of today’s challenges that students and teachers face and makes educational investments that could pay off in dividends down the road.

The governor’s budget proposals also reinforce our efforts to support Medicaid and vital health care services for vulnerable populations. First, the FY 2023 budget proposal includes $139 million to implement the state’s reinsurance program and online health insurance portal in an effort to keep insurance plans and premiums more affordable. His FY 2023 budget proposal also allocates an additional $85 million for improved provider rates to stabilize the state’s Medicaid system; these funds would allow physicians to serve Medicaid patients without operating at a loss. As we continue to address the state’s maternal mortality rates, Kemp’s FY 2023 budget proposal adds new funding that would extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers for a full year postpartum. The FY 2023 proposal appropriates $39.5 million to automatically enroll children in Medicaid services if they enroll in food assistance or TANF benefits, which would ensure that these children receive health benefits in a more efficient and timely manner. His current and upcoming fiscal year proposals also include a combined $33.5 million to fund the state’s mental health crisis networks and services that benefit individuals with behavioral and developmental disabilities. Lastly, the upcoming fiscal year proposal also incorporates $27.8 million to provide a 10 percent provider rate increase, which would offset the rising costs of caring for our state’s foster children. Now, more than ever, it is critical that all Georgians have access to affordable and quality health care services.

Gov. Kemp’s budget proposal also upholds his commitment to keeping all Georgians safe across the state. His recommendations for the upcoming fiscal year include approximately $1.6 million to establish a gang prosecution unit in the attorney general’s office and expand the state’s human trafficking unit. His proposal also includes several million dollars for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s medical examiners and forensic services, which have experienced backlogs in processing criminal evidence. While Georgia’s judicial system has focused on reducing recidivism and rehabilitating low-level, nonviolent offenders when appropriate, the state’s aging correctional infrastructure was not intended to house the number of dangerous offenders that are currently in our prisons. In both budget proposals, the governor recommends a historic total of $600 million to purchase a newer prison facility and build a 3,000 bed facility to house medium and high-security prisoners; investing in modern correctional facilities would allow the state to close four of its older, more dangerous facilities. Overall, these initiatives would create a more efficient criminal justice system, save operational costs and create a safer environment for both officers and offenders.

Like Georgia’s private sector, the state has faced a worker shortage and high turnover rates this last year. To attract and retain the best and brightest state personnel, the governor recommends a $5,000 pay increase for all full-time, benefit eligible state employees starting this fiscal year, which would be the first cost-of-living adjustment for state workers in 14 years. The governor also recommends increasing the state employer match for 401(k) contributions and allowing state employees to withdraw up to 40 hours of eligible leave as pay each year starting July 1. During our hearings this week, nearly every state agency expressed the critical need for this cost-of-living adjustment for state employees, especially in the face of inflation and a competitive job market.

At the end of last year, the Governor announced that Rivian, Inc., an American electric vehicle automaker, will build a $5 billion plant in our state that will eventually employ approximately 7,500 Georgians. As a part of this landmark project, the governor seeks to provide $125 million for land and training development opportunities for Rivian and area residents. The governor’s version of the budget also proposes an investment of more than $41 million for our state parks and $80 million to complete the new Savannah-Georgia Convention Center, both of which aim to enhance tourism and economic development in Georgia.

Now that the joint budget hearings have concluded, the House Appropriations subcommittees will begin to meet separately to review specific portions of the budget and delve deeper into the state agencies’ budget needs. Since the Georgia Constitution requires the budget bills to originate in the House, each House Appropriations subcommittee will pass their respective portions of the current and upcoming fiscal year state budgets, which will collectively result in two complete budget bills to be approved by the full House Appropriations Committee. Then, each budget bill will go to the House Rules Committee to be scheduled for a vote on the House floor. After the budget bills make their way through the House, these bills will be transmitted to our counterparts in the Senate, where they will undergo the same process. As the House and Senate continue to work through the budget process, there will likely be changes to the governor’s original proposals, and I will keep you updated as these bills are finalized.

After this weekend, the House will reconvene for session on Monday, January 24. In the coming weeks, our focus will be turned toward the state budget process. House committees will also begin to meet more frequently to consider legislation that best serves you, your community and our state. As your voice at the Capitol, I always appreciate hearing directly from my constituents back home, especially about issues or policies that could impact our county/counties. My Capitol office number is at 404-656-0152, and my direct email is dale.washburn@house.ga.gov.

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.


*Editor’s Note: A graphic to accompany this column is attached for your convenience.

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