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Senate panel approves budget
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ATLANTA - A Senate panel on Monday signed off on an $18.2 billion budget for the coming fiscal year that adds millions of dollars in new borrowing for capital projects for the state's university system and also finds funds for new investigators to track down tax cheats.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was approved unanimously in the Senate Appropriations Committee. It's expected to face a vote by the full Senate later this week as Georgia's 2011 legislative session heads into its final days.

The Senate budget piled on an additional $50 million in bonds above what Gov. Nathan Deal had proposed. Among the beneficiaries are Georgia Gwinnett College, Georgia Southern University, Dalton College and Armstrong Atlantic University and Dalton.

The Senate also scraped together $23.5 million for additional auditors and investigators for the state Department of Revenue to help the state collect all the taxes it is owed. State Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill said that additional revenue officers added last year have already brought ins some $46 million owed to state coffers. The new spending could net more than $100 million a year, he said.

Hill, a Reidsville Republican, also said Monday that exploding growth in the state's Medicaid rolls and a huge hole in the state health benefit plan contributed to a more than $300 million gap in health funding. Nonetheless, the Senate plan managed to keep dental, vision and podiatry services for low-income Medicaid patients. Deal's budget eliminated those benefits.

Senate budget writers also agreed with the House to soften cuts Deal had proposed to doctors who serve Medicaid patients. Deal wanted to cut their reimbursement rates by 1 percent. The House and Senate have countered with a reduction to 0.5 percent.

Hill acknowledged that the Medicaid rolls are still projected to grow as the economy struggles to rebound. That's presenting a challenge for state balance sheets.

"We think that shortchanging Medicaid is not the best solution although it may be the only solution we can see," Hill said.

The state also is wrestling with how to make a scheduled interest payment this fall on money it borrowed from the federal government to keep the unemployment fund afloat. Budget writers have funneled $18 million to a discretionary fund to be used for that payment of $24 million, if federal officials collect.

Hill also said the state should finds savings through combining backroom services - like payroll - across state agencies and department and he expects some corrections costs to go down as the state moves some nonviolent offenders to alternatives like drug courts.

But that savings was no reflected in the fiscal year 2012 budget plan.

Federal stimulus money is set to dry up in the coming year's budget, which will mean the loss of about $1 billion in cash from Washington.

The House has already passed its version of the budget. The House and Senate must resolve their differences before sending the spending blueprint to Deal for his signature.