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Senate panel sets up budget battle with House

ATLANTA - Senate budget writers Wednesday stripped all but what Republican leaders consider to be essential items from the state's midyear spending plan, forcing a showdown with their House counterparts.

The midyear budget passed unanimously by the Senate Appropriations Committee would fund only four major items: the annual midyear adjustment for growth in school enrollment, PeachCare, indigent defense and relief to victims of this month's tornadoes in South Georgia.

Gone is roughly $200 million of the $700 million in new spending the House approved last week to cover the rest of the state fiscal year, which ends June 30.

"What this is, really, is a 45-day budget,'' said Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, the committee's chairman, referring to the brief period that will remain in the fiscal year by the time Gov. Sonny Perdue signs the midyear budget. "We think we have met the critical and emergency needs of the state.''

The dispute between the two legislative chambers began nine days ago when the House passed its midyear budget, only to yank it back several hours later.

House members voted to reconsider the motion approving the budget when word came down that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer, was considering slashing a host of projects requested either by the governor or the House.

On Tuesday, the House approved the spending plan again and sent it to the Senate, leading to Wednesday's committee vote. The panel's version of the midyear budget includes $164 million for the mid-term school enrollment adjustment, $81 million for PeachCare and $11 million for tornado relief, the same amounts recommended by the House.

The Senate committee also approved a $6.2 million increase for the state's financially struggling indigent defense system, down from $9.6 million in the House version.

But senators balked at spending projects requested by Perdue, notably the next installment of his land conservation initiative and Go Fish Georgia, his plan to boost tourism by building boat ramps large enough to attract fishing tournaments.

A number of projects added by the House also bit the dust, including funds for the Tour de Georgia bicycle race, a sewer plant at a state camp near Covington, a study of a proposed commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Athens and money for the Water Planning and Policy Center at Albany State University.

"Many of the House projects are very good,'' said Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. "But we believe the (midyear) budget is not the place to put special projects.''

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said senators will consider all of the projects requested by Perdue and the House, but only as part of the 2008 budget.

For their part, House leaders said the Senate's insistence on funding the projects next year rather than through the midyear budget is a distinction without a difference.

"They're not reducing spending at all,'' House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said earlier this week as the budget battle was taking shape.

"Somehow, the House is being accused of being fiscally irresponsible, or liberal, in March. ... But if you spend the same amount of money in July, you're conservative.''

The dispute is guaranteed to simmer well into next month.

After Wednesday's committee vote, Hill said the midyear budget won't hit the Senate floor until the Legislature returns from a weeklong Easter recess.