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Schools, health, water dominate mid-year budget
House restores education grants cut by Perdue

ATLANTA - The House on Friday overwhelmingly adopted a mid-year budget that gives Gov. Sonny Perdue everything he asked for, plus something he didn't want.

The mid-year budget, which passed 159-6 and now moves to the Senate, includes new spending for reservoirs and a planned statewide trauma care network.

House members also ponied up the annual mid-year adjustment for Georgia's increased school enrollment and agreed to the governor's request for a substantial boost in technology funding for education. But lawmakers balked at a proposed $30.7 million cut in "equalization" grants to local school systems and voted to put the money back.

"This is not the time to be cutting education," Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told his colleagues. "We have fixed some holes in education funding. ... You can go home and be proud."

Equalization grants are state funds aimed at helping local school systems that aren't spending as much per child as others, often because enrollment growth is outpacing their ability to raise revenue.

Perdue responded to a looming record jump in equalization formula funding of $110 million by recommending a smaller increase that would affect 16 school systems, primarily rapidly growing suburban districts.

Gwinnett County Public Schools, the state's largest school system, would get an additional $14.1 million under the House version of the mid-year budget, nearly half of the total funding lawmakers restored.

Friday's vote promises to be the opening salvo over education funding in this year's legislative budget review.

House Republican leaders also have said they are determined to find a way to restore $141 million in "austerity" reductions Perdue is recommending in his 2009 budget request. The governor has cut the K through 12 per-pupil funding formula every year since taking office in 2003, a cumulative total of $1.5 billion including 2009.

Local school superintendents and school board members blame those cuts for the property tax increases they have imposed across Georgia in recent years.

"We have been beating the drum on this for some time," said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "But the drum beat is getting louder. ... The collective impact of this thing has been devastating."

The mid-year budget represents an increase of $332 million over the $20.2 billion fiscal 2008 budget the General Assembly passed last spring.

That's too much, said Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, especially when considered in light of the continuing growth in state spending since 2005, when Republicans first gained control of the House.

"We came in based on fiscal conservatism ... less government, less taxes," said Davis, who took office that year as part of a group of more than 30 GOP freshmen. "When do we draw the line on spending? Do we believe in the principles we ran on in taking over this House or not?"

But Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, said the vast majority of new spending in the mid-year plan would go to needs that Perdue and most lawmakers agree are vital.

Of the $332 million, $112 million would go toward the student enrollment adjustment, $53 million toward trauma care and $40 million toward reservoirs.

Another $41 million would go to the planned technology upgrade for schools.

"It is the leanest, simplest and most conservative I've seen in the four years I've worked on the budget," Jones said.