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Senate puts Brain Train in 2008 budget

ATLANTA - The Georgia Brain Train, bounced out of last week's midyear budget by an 11th-hour tax cut, has landed in the Senate version of next year's spending plan.

Senators voted 53-1 Tuesday to adopt a $20.2 billion 2008 budget that includes $1.5 million for the proposed commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Athens via Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

The funds would be diverted from another planned commuter rail project, the so-called Lovejoy line, which would run between Atlanta and southern Clayton County.

"We've got to find out which of these rail lines is best," said Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "If we do line one first and no one comes, we're not going to get funding for the second line."

The 2008 budget hikes spending by $1.6 billion over this year, the largest increase in the state's history.

In presenting the budget on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Jack Hill, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, blamed the jump primarily on Georgia's rapid population growth.

The budget now moves to a joint conference committee to iron out differences with the version the House passed last week.

The two spending plans differ in a host of areas, both major and minor. For one thing, the Senate restored some of Gov. Sonny Perdue's key priorities.

Senators approved $45 million of the $50 million the governor requested in January for land conservation and the entire $19 million he is seeking to lure more fishing enthusiasts to Georgia.

The House version stripped all of the conservation money and allocated $18 million for Perdue's Go Fish Georgia initiative.

The House initially earmarked $500,000 in the midyear budget to update a study of the proposed Brain Train, given that catchy name because it would connect college campuses from the University of Georgia to Georgia Gwinnett College, Emory University and Georgia Tech.

But the money fell by the wayside last week when House and Senate negotiators resolved an impasse over the midyear plan by agreeing to cut state property taxes by $142 million. The funds also didn't make it into the House version of the 2008 budget.

Balfour said the $1.5 million would be enough for both the study and to begin acquiring sites for rail stations along the route.

For several years, the Lovejoy line has been ahead of the Brain Train in the state's plans because the Clayton County project had lined up federal funding.

But it hit a snag when the Clayton County Commission voted to rescind an earlier commitment to cover the line's operational costs after its first three years in service.

Studies conducted by rail planners have projected that more passengers would ride the Brain Train than the Lovejoy line.

As the conference committee begins its work, the biggest disagreement shaping up between the House and Senate is $30 million in savings the House built into its budget by instructing the Department of Community Health to shift elderly, blind and disabled Medicaid patients in the Atlanta region into managed care starting

Jan. 1.

DCH Commissioner Rhonda Medows has come out against the proposal. Late last week, she said the agency hasn't determined whether moving low-income adults and children on Medicaid into managed care last year was successful, either in improving the quality of care or saving tax dollars.

Medows also said that gaining federal approval to expand the initiative would take much longer than the timetable envisioned by the House.

Responding to the commissioner's concerns, the Senate rejected the proposal.

"To play around with the Medicaid numbers is a dangerous game," said Hill, R-Reidsville.

To compensate for taking those Medicaid savings out of the budget, the Senate also rolled back a $40 million reduction in "austerity" cuts to K-12 education in the House spending plan to just $20 million.

Still, both legislative chambers would cut less from per-pupil funding than the $140 million Perdue recommended in January.