Senate budget sends more to schools, helps teacher health care

The Georgia Senate Friday easily passed a midyear budget that adds $300 million in new spending, including more money for schools and cash to help fix at least some problems in the health care program for teachers, state employees and retirees.

About $130 million in the amended budget, which runs through June 30, will go to pay for school enrollment increases last fall.

The House passed the measure last month. The Senate made mostly minor changes, so the two chambers should have little trouble quickly coming to a final agreement.

The House is expected to take up the $20.8 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1, shortly. The General Assembly must pass the two budgets before adjourning, probably in mid-March.

Gov. Nathan Deal and legislators are speeding up the session because they moved primary elections for state and local races from July to May 20, the earliest date for the contests in Georgia’s recorded history. Deal is running for re-election, as are most of the 236 members of the House and Senate. By law, they can’t raise campaign money while they are in session.

Besides the extra money in the mid-year budget to fund school enrollment, the Senate spending plan adds $58 million to pay for changes the Deal administration and Department of Community Health made in the State Health Benefits Plan, which provides coverage to 650,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their dependents.

DCH changed the plan starting Jan. 1, offering a single provider and forcing plan members to pay much higher out-of-pocket costs. Teachers, retirees and state employees revolted, starting a campaign to get the changes reversed.

Deal didn’t relish facing the anger of teachers in an election year, and his DCH board quickly changed provisions of the plan to eliminate many of the high out-of-pocket costs. That didn’t answer all the complaints, but it did cut dramatically into the savings the Deal administration hoped to get from the program. So the Senate added $58 million to the budget that would otherwise have been paid by teachers, employees and retirees.

Other minor increases dot the budget, which will increase overall state spending this year from $19.9 billion to $20.2 billion. Local school systems and governments will get $26 million to reimburse them for property tax money they lose on forest land that is put into conservation. Another $25 million will go to grants and loans to help local communities attract and retain businesses.

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