JANUARY 15, 2014
By Greg Bluestein and James Salzer
Gov. Nathan Deal wants to plow more than 80 percent of new state spending next year into schools, following the strategy of predecessors who paved their way to re-election by embracing public education.
Facing challenges from two Republicans and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter this election year, Deal on Wednesday promised to send $315 million to schools to end teacher furloughs, add school days and give raises as part of the largest education spending increase since before the Great Recession.
"These funds will provide our local school systems with the resources and flexibility to address the most critical needs of their students and teachers," the governor said.
Raises for teachers are not automatic. Deal acknowledged that some teachers may go without pay increases, because he's leaving it to local school districts to decide how to spend the money.
He also called for more than $400 million in school, university and technical college construction projects; millions for new programs to help Georgians complete degrees and afford technical college tuition; millions more to help improve Internet connectivity in schools; and extra money to get more people trained to be welders and health care technicians.
Deal has more money to spend this year because of growing tax receipts, and pumping it into education could help blunt criticism that his Republican majority has slashed school spending in recent years.
In total, state spending would increase from $19.9 billion to $20.8 billion in fiscal 2015, which starts July 1.
Increasing school spending in a re-election year is a tradition for Georgia governors, so Deal's budget priorities were not a surprise.
During his annual address to the General Assembly Wednesday, Deal defended his administration's record on school funding, saying 13 percent more money has gone into the state's basic funding for instruction since he took office.
Educators argue those increases didn't make up for years of budget cuts that forced districts to cut programs and raise property taxes.
Two of Deal's opponents, Carter and State School Superintendent John Barge, have made increasing school spending a priority and have been highly critical of cuts in recent years.
Deal proposed $547 million more in K-12 school funding next year. About $200 million of that would merely fund growth in student enrollment. The $315 million would go to shore up local budgets, and school districts can choose raises, smaller classes, more school days or other ways to spend the money.
"I trust local government, I trust local school boards and superintendents to use the money we are sending and put it in the places they think are most important," he said.
The governor also said teachers who have been forced to take days off without pay will, in a sense, get a pay raise if school districts end furloughs.
The state has not offered teachers and most state employees cost-of-living raises since the start of the Great Recession. After announcing his budget plans, the governor was quickly attacked by Carter, who said teacher furloughs and fewer school days in recent years have meant that "there is simply less educating going on in our state. Since 2008, Georgia's public schools have lost more than 9,000 classroom teachers while the number of students has gone up."
Carter called for a "trust fund for education that will keep the politicians from raiding it to pay for other things."
Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teacher group, said his organization liked the "theme and vision" of the governor's proposals.
"The past several years have seen flat-lining of teacher salaries and about $6 billion in austerity cuts," he said. "At first reading, Gov. Deal's budget represents a down payment on digging out of both of those craters.
"However, the details here are important. We have seen previous speeches that claimed an end had come to furloughs, when the detailed budget that was passed made them necessary for many districts."
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate president, praised Deal's proposal to pump more money into education, "rightfully our state's top priority."
But one of Deal's Republican opponents, Dalton Mayor David Pennington, took the opposite track, complaining that the governor has presided over four years of spending increases while Georgians have struggled through sluggish economic times.
Under Deal's proposed budget, University System employees and other state workers would be eligible for merit raises. Like teachers, however, they may or may not get raises. The governor proposed that about $50 million go for raises for state and university employees, the equivalent of a 1 percent increase if spread out to all workers. Deal wants to set aside a special allocation to increase the salaries of low-paid prison and juvenile justice staffers, who could get raises in the range of 12 percent.
The governor also encouraged lawmakers to create a new HOPE Grant to pay the full tuition of technical college students with high grade-point averages, similar to the one for university system scholars. He also proposed $10 million in low-interest loans for technical college students
During his address, the governor reiterated plans to put $35 million into deepening Savannah's ports. That would increase the state's total contribution for the project to $266 million.
"I intend for us to start dredging this year," he said. "We have studied and planned long enough. It's time to start moving dirt."
Earlier Wednesday, Deal said he wants to spend an extra $12 million on emergency medical flights in Southwest Georgia, $5 million for extra technical school training for in-demand jobs and $25 million in new economic development efforts. He proposed a little more than $7 million to add staff to the troubled child welfare system.
PeachCare and Medicaid would see about a $1oo million increase, officials said, with much of that associated with implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Department of Community Health officials said they expect more eligible Georgians to sign up for Medicaid because the act mandates people sign up for coverage.
Deal is proposing $763 million in borrowing for construction and equipment projects, more than half in education. The largest project would be a $44.7 million science building at UGA. Also in the bond package was $45.5 million for new reservoir projects and $12.5 million to design and prepare a site down the street from the Capitol for a new judicial complex.
Administration staffers said lawmakers are expected to add another $100 million in projects to the bond package before the budget wins final approval, probably in March.