Gwinnett living large in approved state budget

ATLANTA - It wasn't surprising that Georgia Gwinnett College made the final version of the 2008 state bud-get adopted by the General Assembly in the final hour of this year's session.

Gov. Sonny Perdue asked for $28.3 million for a library for the new school back in January, as well as $10 million in startup funds. The money then stayed there throughout the legislature's review of the $20.2 billion spending plan, all the way through the final agreement reached late Friday by House and Senate conferees.

But $1.5 million for the Georgia Brain Train also survived in the final product, even though it was a late arrival.

And Gwinnett County landed $400,000 in local assistance grants, often derided by fiscal conservatives as "pork'' projects, that were loaded into the final version of the budget by the conference committee, a reflection of both the local delegation's clout at the Capitol and Georgia's swelling coffers.

Thanks to healthy tax collections, Perdue and the legislature will increase state spending during the fiscal year starting July 1 by $1.6 billion, the largest one-year jump in state history.

After some bumps along the way, the governor ended up with more than $42 million of the $50 million he requested for land conservation and all $19 million of his Go Fish Georgia initiative to make the state a haven for fishing tourism.

Lawmakers also ended up siding with the governor's $140 million "austerity'' cut to the state's per-pupil K-12 funding formula. That's a smaller reduction than the last several years, but both the House and Senate had sought to make it even less.

But that wasn't possible in the final budget because the conferees rejected an earlier House proposal to save $30 million by moving elderly, blind and disabled Medicaid recipients in the Atlanta region into managed care as of next January.

Rhonda Medows, head of the state agency that oversees Medicaid, called the plan premature and impossible to accomplish in such a short time.

"We want to look toward moving those (recipients), but we want the department to do it in its own time,'' said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Agreeing to the full austerity cut to education recommended by the governor also allowed the legislature to fully fund the state's school construction program, both for "regular'' and "exceptional growth'' districts.

School system administrators across the state, particularly those from fast-growing counties like Gwinnett, had raised alarms in recent weeks about earlier plans to fund the programs at a lower level.

Lawmakers also added $1.6 million to the budget to fund a foreign language program in the elementary schools that Perdue had cut, and restored nearly $650,000 in operating money the governor had cut from the State Ethics Commission.

The final version of the budget also includes $1.75 million for 50 new state trooper cars and $400,000 for the annual Tour de Georgia bicycle race.

Backers of a proposed commuter rail line have the Senate to thank for a $1.5 million allocation for the Georgia Brain Train. Senate budget writers grabbed the money from a pot earmarked for another planned commuter rail project, and it remained in the final agreement.

The funds are to update an existing study of the Brain Train project and to help buy land for rail stations along the planned Atlanta-to-Athens route, which bisects Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

Gwinnett's share of $6.5 million in local assistance grants shoehorned into the budget is substantial. The largest of 16 projects approved for state funding would send $50,000 to Lawrenceville for traffic and community development improvements.

Here are the 17 local assistance grants for Gwinnett and Barrow counties added to the 2008 state budget by a House-Senate conference committee:

•Traffic and community development improvements in Lawrenceville, $50,000

•Infrastructure improvements at Collins Hill High School, $35,000

•Accessibility improvements in Buford, $30,000

•Reading and mentoring program, Gwinnett schools, $30,000

•Teacher training, Gwinnett schools, $30,000

•Community service, education enhancement at Grayson High School, $30,000

•Landscape Beaver Ruin Road median, Gwinnett County, $25,000

•Employment program for handicapped, Gwinnett County, $25,000

•Access and transportation improvements, Gwinnett County, $20,000

•"Living memorial'' in Duluth to honor veterans, public safety personnel, $20,000

•Communications system for Lilburn Police Department, $20,000

•Message signs, equipment, laptop computers for police cars, Snellville, $20,000

•Funds for Gwinnett Village Community Alliance, $20,000

•Infrastructure improvements at Norcross High School, $20,000

•Infrastructure improvements at Peachtree Ridge High School, $20,000

•Infrastructure improvements at Osborne Park, Winder, $20,000

•Infrastructure improvements at Gwinnett Village, $5,000