Gov. Deal proposes $45B budget for Georgia as economy improves, revenues climb

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ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a $45 billion budget plan Friday that would narrow the spending gap in public education, hire more child protection workers and give state employees low-level raises.

The budget proposal from the Republican governor comes as Georgia's economy is showing signs of sustained growth after the damaging Great Recession and the sluggish recovery that followed. As the economy improves, people are earning and spending more, raising more tax money to fund state government.

Deal's administration expects tax revenue will grow more than 4 percent during the next financial year starting in July. Consequently, Deal and lawmakers are likely to spend more time debating what to fund, not what to cut. Of the $45 billion total, $21.7 billion would be funds raised by Georgia's government. Most of the remainder is federal money.

Public school districts would receive about a half-billion dollars less than what they are promised under state funding formulas. However, Deal's budget would earmark roughly $280 million in fresh funding to shrink the gap. The budget also includes additional money to cover normal enrollment and other growth.

Deal said he wants the fresh education funding used to add more instructional days to school calendars, reduce or eliminate teacher furloughs, or cover teacher raises. Local school officials would ultimately decide how to spend the cash.

"The governor proposed putting it into the local level and letting the local system make those decisions," said Chris Riley, Deal's chief of staff.

Rep. David Wilkerson, a Democrat from Austell, praised the plan to spend more on education but said more is necessary.

"We have a ways to go before we're honoring our commitments to the students and their families," Wilkerson said. "I don't think you have any school systems in the state of Georgia saying, 'We have too much money.'"

The governor's budget plans would also fund the hiring of 278 caseworkers to investigate complaints of abused and neglected children and 11 caseworkers to investigate elder abuse.

An additional $12 million would be spent to fund two charter high schools within the state prison system and other initiatives meant to educate offenders.

Deal would add four attorneys and four investigators at the state's ethics commission, a cost of roughly $1 million. Riley said the commission would have the flexibility to decide exactly what mix of staffers it needs.

Tasked with enforcing campaign and ethics laws, the commission has been hobbled by lawsuits, personnel conflicts and allegations its investigations were undermined by outside political influence. Auditors said the commission failed to consider a single complaint for a year and a half.

During his re-election campaign, Deal discussed adding more members to the commission. But after meeting with members of the ethics commission, Deal opted to delay any structural changes for a year and see if increased funding made a difference.

"The governor was concerned about whether the financial resources were readily available for the agency to meet its needs," Riley said.

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