Deal budget proposal narrows school cuts, increases salaries

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ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Nathan Deal outlined plans to narrow a spending gap for public education, help local school boards raise teacher pay and boost salaries for state workers — especially those in targeted public safety and health care jobs — as he proposed a $47.5 billion budget for state government Thursday.

Lawmakers will start reviewing the Republican governor's spending plan next week as floor sessions continue. The House and Senate are hoping to adjourn by March 24 this year.

Deal's plan would spend $23.7 billion from state tax collections and other Georgia revenue. The rest comes from federal sources.

The state portion is up from last year's proposed $21.7 billion. As Georgia's economy continues to recover from the Great Recession and the population grows, Deal's administration predicts tax revenue will rise more than 4 percent.

Deal's plan includes $300 million intended to help school districts end furloughs and lengthen school years after cuts during the recession. That would mean public school districts would receive about $166 million less than what they are promised under state funding formulas, the smallest gap since cuts began in financial year 2009 according to the Department of Education.

Administration officials said the money will cover a 3 percent salary increase for teachers and urged school boards not to divert it for other purposes. In Wednesday's State of the State address, Deal put off changes to the state's formula for funding schools until 2017.

If districts want more flexibility to decide how to spend state money in coming years, they need to demonstrate a "trust factor," Riley said.

"If all education decisions are best made locally and you truly believe that, you put that money in and let the system make that decision," he said.

Rep. David Wilkerson, treasurer for the House Democratic Caucus, said the increase to education dollars is appreciated but doesn't erase the damage of past cuts.

"For a teacher looking out at a full classroom and working every night and on weekends, that increase is not as important as letting them focus on teaching rather than unrelated responsibilities," Wilkerson said.

Some lawmakers have been eager to cut income taxes, as the recovering economy raises revenue, but Deal's aides struck a cautious tone. Georgia's overall tax collections and other revenue are at a record high but more people live in Georgia too. The state's spending per resident is at about about the level reported in 1998, Deal's chief of staff Chris Riley said.

Deal has made building the state's "rainy day" reserve fund a priority to protect the state's bond rating and will evaluate any tax legislation with that in mind, Riley said.

About 45 percent of the state's new taxes came from a transportation funding package passed last year, increasing gas taxes and creating a variety of new fees to fund road and bridge work. Deal announced earlier this week that Georgia's Department of Transportation had developed a 10-year plan expected to put $10 billion into projects around the state.

Deal's budget recommends about $94 million be used for 3 percent salary increases for state employees, based on merit and to recruit and retain staff. It also provides $42.9 million for certain positions in several state agencies, including the Department of Corrections, Juvenile Justice and Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

More details are expected as lawmakers begin budget hearings.

Riley said agencies will use a targeted approach, and employees in some high turnover jobs could see up to 10 percent salary bumps. The Department of Corrections, for example, sees a 30 percent turnover rate each year, he said.

"You're putting people that make 23 to 25,000 (dollars) starting salary in a life-and-death decision making process," he said.

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