State Senate budget boosts pay for public safety workers

ATLANTA - The Senate Thursday adopted a 2007 budget that would offer additional pay raises to state public safety employees above the increases earmarked for Georgia teachers and other state workers.

The $18.65 billion spending plan, which passed 50-3, also would extend state-funded home and community-based services to more than 2,000 of Georgia's frail elderly, mentally retarded and physically and developmentally disabled.

"To me, this is a monumental step,'' said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who heads the Senate budget subcommittee with jurisdiction over the state Department of Human Resources. "We're actually putting our money where our heart has been.''

The budget, recommended by Gov. Sonny Perdue in January and approved by the House earlier this month, moves next to a House-Senate conference committee.

Three appointees from the House and three from the Senate will negotiate a compromise to bring back to their colleagues. Typically, lawmakers adopt the following year's budget on the next-to-last or last day of the 40-day legislative session.

Locally, the Senate sided with the House on a couple of key spending items affecting Gwinnett County.

Like the House budget, the Senate earmarked $1 million in startup costs for Georgia Gwinnett College. Senators also agreed to leave $2 million set aside for the new Hamilton Mill branch library in the midyear budget, meaning that money will be available before the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

The governor proposed 4-percent raises during the coming year for Georgia teachers and increases of 2 percent to 4 percent for state employees.

The House then upped the ante another 3 percent for about 10,000 employees in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the state departments of correction, pardons and paroles, and public safety.

On Thursday, the Senate voted to extend those additional raises to rangers who work for the Department of Natural Resources.

Elsewhere in the budget, the Senate kicked in more money for some items and reduced funding for others.

On the plus side, senators added $800,000 to help the State Ethics Commission handle additional duties assigned to the agency in an ethics overhaul passed by lawmakers last year, restored $200,000 in planning money for passenger rail service that had been cut by the House and added $250,000 to open a trade office in China.

"China is the hottest market in the world now,'' said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee.

However, the Senate yanked $300,000 both Perdue and the House had recommended to hire eight additional inspectors to check construction sites for compliance with the state's erosion-control law.

The Senate also added $37 million in borrowing for building projects, bringing the total to just less than $1 billion.