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Perdue unveils record-breaking spending plan

ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue asked the General Assembly on Wednesday for new dollars to improve education and health care, boost Georgia's economy and preserve pristine land.

But Democrats pointed to continued cuts to education in Perdue's 2008 budget request that he didn't talk about in his annual State of the State address as proof that he hasn't changed his priorities since winning re-election last fall.

The $20.2 billion spending plan - a record for the state and 8 percent higher than the current budget - would give teachers and state workers a 3 percent raise, begin building a fund to meet Georgia's long-term obligations to retirees' health costs, increase spending to promote tourism and commit an additional $50 million to open space preservation.

During a 28-minute speech to a joint session of the General Assembly, Perdue said those new investments are needed to achieve progress in a growing state.

"We've made great strides,'' he said. "But we can - and will - do even more.''

But Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, said there was nothing in the speech to show that the governor was interested in more than the status quo for Georgia.

"Same soup, different bowl,'' Brown said. "We didn't hear anything new.''

Perdue announced about a dozen budget initiatives during the State of the State, a combination of new proposals and promises made either during the recent campaign or in speeches leading up to Wednesday's appearance before the Legislature.

The list included:

• A 3 percent pay increase for teachers and state employees, which would keep Georgia teachers the highest paid in the Southeast. With longevity increases, Perdue said more than half of the state's teachers would receive raises of 6 percent.

• Expanding the graduation coaches program the governor launched last year from high schools into middle schools. Altogether, the program would require $44 million in fiscal 2008.

• Setting aside $100 million as the first installment of a long-term commitment to cover future obligations to health coverage for state retirees. The federal government recently announced plans to hold states accountable for that money for the first time. The hit on Georgia is anticipated to be about $20 billion over 30 years.

• Investing an additional $50 million in the $100 million land conservation program the governor launched two years ago. The new money would be in the form of grants rather than the low-interest loans that now dominate the program, which have failed to draw much interest from local governments.

• Two tourism promotion initiatives, $19 million for improvements needed to make Georgia a major attraction for fishing and boating, and $5 million to develop the Resaca battlefield in northwestern Georgia and other Civil War sites in time for the 150th anniversary of the conflict beginning in 2011.

The governor also touched on his primary campaign pledge, legislation to eliminate state taxes on retirement income.

Following the speech, Perdue's education initiatives drew praise from teachers groups.

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, called expanding the graduation coaches program a sound way to try to reduce the state's dropout rate.

"As a middle school teacher for 15 years, I can testify to students who fall through the cracks,'' he said.

Hubbard said teachers also appreciate the pay raise and Perdue's proposal to continue giving out $100 gift cards to teachers before the school year to help with the purchase of supplies.

But Democrats slammed the Republican governor for continuing to cut the state's formula for K-12 basic instruction. The 2008 budget would slice formula funding by nearly $140 million, $30 million less than this year's cut but still a major reduction.

Perdue began cutting the formula in 2003, his first year in office, during a recession-driven budget crunch that lasted for more than two years.

"Governor Perdue is shortchanging our children again,'' state Democratic Chairman Bobby Kahn said. "He continues his longstanding policy of not funding our schools at even a basic level.''

But Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House Education Committee, said a resolution to the dispute over school funding is in the offing.

A commission created by Perdue more than two years ago to determine the best way for the state to finance education is expected to issue its findings by this summer.

"That's what this whole task force is about,'' Coleman said. "How should we fund education? What should the (state-local) partnership be?''

Democrats, however, did praise Perdue for requesting that $100 million be set aside to begin to cover the long-term costs of state retirees.

"For many years, people have taken less money to work for the state,'' said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin. "To take that away would be absolutely wrong.''

Porter and other Democrats also vowed to back Perdue in asking Congress to bail out the joint federal-state children's health insurance program launched more than a decade ago.

State health officials have warned that without an infusion of $131 million, Georgia's PeachCare for Kids will run out of money before the middle of this year.