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Mid-year budget clears General Assembly with bonuses for teachers, state workers

ATLANTA — The General Assembly gave final passage Thursday to a $26.5 billion fiscal 2021 mid-year budget that covers state spending through June 30.

The state House of Representatives passed the spending plan 165-4. The Georgia Senate then approved it unanimously less than an hour later.

While lawmakers signed off on most of the spending recommendations Gov. Brian Kemp made last month, legislative leaders worked with the governor to add $60 million to provide one-time $1,000 raises to more than 57,000 state employees earning less than $80,000 per year.

Kemp’s original mid-year budget already had earmarked $1,000 raises for Georgia teachers and school staff including cafeteria workers, custodians and resource personnel.

Front-line state workers including public health nurses, troopers, road crews and child welfare caseworkers deserve raises after stepping up during the coronavirus pandemic, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England.

“They don’t have the option to only be virtual,” said England, R-Auburn. “They have to have face-to-face contact. … Their jobs aren’t glamorous. But they’re there every day.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said the $1,000 bonuses will be funded by a mix of federal dollars and savings from higher Medicaid payments the federal government has been making amid the pandemic.

The mid-year budget, which now heads to Kemp for his signature, restores $567 million of $950 million in cuts to K-12 schools the General Assembly imposed last year as state tax revenues slowed due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Another $73.6 million will go to restore cuts lawmakers made to the University System of Georgia.

The legislature also supported the governor’s recommendation for $20 million to expand broadband service in rural Georgia.

As the mid-year spending plan went through the review process, lawmakers added funds to support 10% raises for correctional officers in both the state prison and juvenile detention systems to help stem alarming turnover rates.

The final version of the mid-year budget also includes additions of $40 million to buy 520 new school buses and $11 million in bond funds repurposed to help the state Department of Public Health train workers in providing COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine reservations.

Lawmakers added $3 million to the $1 million already appropriated to help Georgia’s tourism industry recover following the pandemic. Most of the additional funds will go to the Georgia World Congress Center, which lost all of its convention business to the virus, England said.

The House and Senate also agreed to add $455,000 for domestic violence and assault centers and set aside $100,000 to help the Georgia Department of Labor deal with a huge influx of unemployment claims brought on by the pandemic. The money will be used to hire a chief labor officer to oversee claims and financial audits.