Perdue sets priorities

ATLANTA - Parents and teachers would be key beneficiaries of an $18.6 billion 2007 state budget recommended Wednesday by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Sex offenders, on the other hand, would be the target for a portion of the $1.25 billion in new spending initiatives the Republican governor outlined during his annual State of the State message before a joint session of the General Assembly.

"We must get dangerous sexual predators off our streets and away from our children," Perdue said to one of the loudest rounds of applause from members of the House and Senate he received during a 44-minute speech.

In keeping with a pledge from GOP legislative leaders to pass a tough law aimed at child sex offenders this year, the governor proposed spending $45 million to build the additional prison space that would be needed to enforce the longer sentences contemplated in bills being pushed by House and Senate Republicans. He said the money would allow the state prison system to add more than 4,300 beds.

Perdue also endorsed legislative leaders' plans to make it more difficult for local governments to exercise the right of eminent domain to condemn private property.

The issue has become a priority for Georgia lawmakers following a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed a city in Connecticut to condemn houses in an older neighborhood to make way for a private development that would generate more taxes.

But Perdue devoted most of his address to his budget recommendations, which would drive up state spending from this year's $17.4 billion.

He revealed a host of initiatives in addition to proposals he already had announced during the past week.

Almost three-fourths of the new spending would go toward education, including $10 million to buy a $100 gift card for every teacher in Georgia.

"Many of our teachers dig into their own pockets each school year to purchase classroom materials and supplies," the governor said. "It's just one more tool we can provide our teachers to help them do their important job."

Perdue also announced a new child-care tax credit for Georgia's working parents, which would provide $50 million by 2008 to help with child-care expenses.

The governor also unveiled several smaller initiatives for high-tech research aimed at creating well-paying jobs and proposed spending $1 million to form a statewide unit within the GBI to fight crimes related to methamphetamine abuse.

And Perdue reiterated a list of proposals he has made in recent days, from giving teachers and state employees 4 percent raises next year to requiring local school systems to spend 65 percent of their funds in the classrooms.

After the speech, Democrats argued for 6 percent raises, saying that's the minimum teachers and state workers would need to recover from the low raises and health-insurance premium increases of the past three years.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, continued to hammer Perdue for three years of cuts in state formula funding for public schools.

Those cuts would continue next year under the budget the governor released Wednesday with an additional reduction of nearly $170 million. It's a smaller cut than the previous three years but would bring the four-year total to more than $1.25 billion.

Porter also noted that the governor made no mention of the overhaul of Medicaid his administration is planning to put into effect on April 1.

A huge segment of Georgia's Medicaid population is being turned over to managed-care networks, a change critics say will pose a major disruption for those patients.

"There was no mention all all today about ... what we anticipate literally will be a train wreck for health care in Georgia," Porter said.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he was encouraged that Perdue didn't talk about either illegal immigration or legislation requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls, both top priorities for Republican lawmakers.

"I don't think he considers those hot-button issues," Smyre said.

But Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, Smyre's counterpart with Senate Republicans, said illegal immigration and the voter ID bill simply aren't part of Perdue's agenda.

"This governor has let the Legislature do legislative things, and he does his things," Balfour said.

The General Assembly's budget committees will take up Perdue's spending recommendations during two days of hearings next week.