Georgia House leaders rejected Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to cut health insurance benefits to 22,000 part-time school employees and their families, but local school districts would wind up picking up the tab.
The $103 million local districts would have to pay in additional “contributions” to the State Health Benefit Plan for so-called “noncertified” system workers would severely eat into the extra money Deal and lawmakers promised schools to give teachers raises, eliminate furloughs and add back class time.
The proposal is part of the $21.8 billion state budget for next year that the House Appropriations Committee approved on Wednesday. It is expected to pass the full House on Thursday before heading to the Senate. Fiscal 2016 begins July 1.
The spending plan also includes $200 million worth of borrowing for new transportation projects; $100 million to repair and replace dangerous bridges across the state; and $100 million for transit projects.
More money may get added later if the General Assembly passes legislation currently being debated that would put an extra $1 billion a year into transportation.
Plan seeks raises for judges
The House budget also would provide big raises for some of the state’s top judges, cut in half Deal’s proposal to add staff to the troubled state ethics commission and deeply reduce a program designed to give low-interest loans to college students.
The state budget provides funding to help educate about 2 million students and provide health and nursing care for more than 1.8 million Georgians. The state funds road improvements and prisons, economic development initiatives and cancer research, business and environmental regulation, parks and water projects. It creates thousands of private-sector jobs through construction projects.
The health insurance issue for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other part-time school employees has been one of the most contentious of the session.
Deal proposed booting part-time school employees off the State Health Benefit Plan to save the program money. The Department of Community Health said it would only save the state $2.7 million, while administration officials and lawmakers put the savings at $81 million.
DCH said the insurance coverage program for noncertified school workers, such as bus drivers and bookkeepers, was losing big money. Deal also said it was unfair for part-time school workers to get insurance when thousands of part-time state workers don’t get coverage. Part-time lawmakers are covered by the State Health Benefit Plan, and there has been no move to cut them from the program.
‘Just trying to level the playing field’
Bus drivers and teachers have lobbied the General Assembly hard for more than a month to reject Deal’s proposal.
House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said he supported giving part-time school workers insurance.
“We feel like there is a vital role these individuals play in transporting our students,” he said.
But he later added: “Everybody needs to understand those are local (school) system employees. Part-time state employees don’t get coverage. We are just trying to level the playing field with everybody.”
Lawmakers had agreed a few years ago to start increasing the “employer contribution” — money from school districts — to pay for full- and part-time “noncertified” school workers’ insurance. Under the House budget, districts would have to pay an additional $102.8 million.
At the same time, the budget includes an extra $280 million recommended by Deal to allow school districts to give raises and end furloughs that were prevalent during and after the Great Recession.
Shift in costs displeases educators
The added health insurance costs didn’t sit well with educators.
“I think the educators and education support professionals are simply tired with the funding shell game that is going on at the Capitol,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County school band director and spokesman for the group Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices, or TRAGIC. “Budgets are priorities, and you can’t say education is a priority if you give money with one hand and take it away with the other.
“There are districts in Georgia that still cannot open their doors for the full 180-day school year. Do you think they will be able to afford insurance for bus drivers and cafeteria workers?”
Angela Palm of the Georgia School Boards Association said: “Just as the state has been able to start paying down the austerity cut so the districts can get the instructional time back to where it needs to be for students, this happens. How unfortunate.”
In their budget plan, House leaders also more than cut in half the increase Deal proposed to boost the staff of the state ethics commission, which enforces the state’s campaign finance and lobbying laws. Deal proposed adding four attorneys and four investigators to expedite complaints made to the commission; the House agreed to add two attorneys and two auditors.
The House leaders supported pay raises for the state’s top judges. Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges would get $12,000 raises. Circuit public defenders would get $15,000 raises. Superior Court judges and district attorneys in circuits that don’t provide big salary supplements would also get raises.
Loan program for students faces cut
Deal had proposed increasing the budget for low-interest loans for college students from $19 million to $25 million because of greater need for the loans. England said lawmakers found that the program had a high default rate, and they cut funding instead to $17 million for the upcoming year. Meanwhile, they increased by 50 percent Deal’s proposed budget for engineering scholarships for private Mercer University, a longtime pet program for Middle Georgia lawmakers.
The spending plan includes about $1 billion in new construction projects, mostly for k-12 schools, colleges and transportation.
The state would borrow $23 million for parking facilities near the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Lawmakers approved borrowing $17 million for the project last year.
Deal’s efforts to remake Capitol Hill would also continue in next year’s budget. With Liberty Plaza across from the statehouse and several other projects completed, the governor included $6.5 million to demolish the former archives building just off I-20, and House leaders supported it. The building hasn’t been used as an archives for several years, and state officials want to tear it down and build a new courts facility on the location.