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$20.2 billion budget clears House committee

ATLANTA - Georgia Gwinnett College and Gwinnett public schools were winners in the 2008 state budget adopted Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee.

But there's no money in the $20.2 billion spending plan for the Georgia Brain Train, a proposed commuter rail line that would run through Gwinnett and Barrow counties on its way between Atlanta and Athens.

The House panel made major changes in Gov. Sonny Perdue's 2008 budget request, particularly in education and health care, before sending it to the full House for a vote, which is expected today.

The committee voted to restore $40 million in cuts to the per-pupil school funding formula Perdue has imposed every year since he took office in 2003.

The governor slashed the formula by more than $300 million a year early in his first term, citing sluggish state tax collections. Restoring $40 million would bring the 2008 reduction down to about $100 million, Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, the committee's chairman, told his budget writing colleagues.

Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell, praised the move.

"Each time the administration offers these cuts up, the cost shifts right down to local property taxes," he said.

Also responding to the concerns of local school districts, the committee agreed to fully fund the state's school construction program, both for "regular" and "exceptional growth" districts.

"Without a doubt, these changes will benefit every school system in the state," said Gwinnett Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who runs the largest public school system in Georgia and one of the fastest growing.

The committee also added funds for nine college building projects across the state and left intact others requested by Perdue in January, including $28.3 million for a library at Georgia Gwinnett College and another $10 million in start-up funds for the eight-month-old school.

But not everyone was happy with what the House panel did with the budget.

Health care advocates began gearing up to oppose a plan to save a projected $30 million next year by expanding managed care to aged, blind and disabled Medicaid patients in the Atlanta region.

Care management organizations have been covering services to women and children on Medicaid since last June, but the jury is still out on that effort, said consumer health advocate Linda Lowe.

"This totally came out of the blue," she said. "We need some independent evaluation of how this is going before we put people who are even more vulnerable into this program."

The House panel also gave and took away when it came to the governor's priorities.

After signing off on a 2007 midyear budget that yanks funding for Perdue's Go Fish Georgia and land conservation initiatives, the committee folded $18 million of the $19 million the governor wanted for his fishing program into the 2008 spending plan.

Perdue would get his entire $13 million request for a fish hatchery that would double as a visitor center, while the committee sliced just $1 million off the $6 million he requested to build large boat ramps that could be used to lure fishing tournaments to Georgia.

"In a fiscally conservative legislative environment, meeting nearly 100 percent of the governor's recommendation is highly appreciated," said Glenn Dowling, executive vice president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. "This is a wise investment that will return millions of dollars."

But Dowling and other environmental advocates were unhappy that the committee didn't give Perdue any of the $50 million he is seeking for additional greenspace acquisitions.

The governor included all of that money in his midyear budget request and lost it all to a bare-bones agreement reached by House and Senate leaders this week.

Other spending items knocked out of the midyear budget did resurface in the House panel's 2008 spending plan, including $3.5 million for 100 new state trooper cars and $500,000 to help stage the Tour de Georgia bicycle race.

But another $500,000 that the House originally had included in the midyear budget to update an existing study of the Georgia Brain Train didn't make it into the 2008 budget.

Rep. John Heard, R-Lawrenceville, a member of the Appropriations Committee and supporter of the rail project, said it's not too late to secure the money.

"We're in good shape in Gwinnett on everything but the Brain Train," he said. "I'm hopeful that as we go to (the House-Senate) conference committee (on the budget), we'll get that."