House budget restores cuts to education

ATLANTA - The House took a stand Thursday against six years of "austerity" cuts to education imposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, adopting a budget that would roll back the annual reductions to about $50 million.

House Republican leaders had vowed earlier this year to completely restore the K-12 per-pupil formula cuts the GOP governor has included in each of his budgets since taking office in 2003.

The reductions peaked at more than $330 million during Perdue's first term but had dropped to $141 million in the 2009 budget he recommended in January.

But the governor's decision this month to reduce his revenue estimate for next year by $245 million because of sagging tax collections limited legislative budget writers to restoring only $90 million, said Rep. Ben Harbin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"This is not a Democrat issue or a Republican issue," said Harbin, R-Evans. "This is about funding education and doing it right."

The partial restoration of the governor's austerity cuts highlighted a $21.2 billion budget, which the House passed 166-1.

The spending plan now goes to the Senate.

Also on Thursday, the House and Senate gave final approval to Perdue's mid-year budget request, covering state spending through June 30.

The mid-year spending plan also was dominated by education spending, as lawmakers rejected a $30.7 million cut in state equalization grants to 16 school districts - including Gwinnett Public Schools - that had been recommended by the governor.

The legislature restored $20 million of that amount to the mid-year budget, while the House version of the 2009 budget contains the other $10.7 million.

In making the cut, Perdue argued that the 20-year-old equalization formula needs to be updated to steer more funds toward poor rural school systems and less toward wealthier suburban districts.

"Maybe it needs to be changed," Harbin said. "But as long as you have those funding formulas, you should fully fund them."

While the House agreed with some of the spending cuts Perdue recommended this month when he lowered his revenue forecast for next year, lawmakers also found other ways to reach the $245 million target.

Notably, the House restored proposed pay raises for teachers and state employees back to the 2.5 percent increases the governor had recommended in January. Perdue asked the legislature this month to curb those raises to 2 percent.

Also, lawmakers slashed $25 million from the governor's land conservation program, leaving it with only $10 million, and restored some of the reductions the governor requested in home and community-based services for Medicaid patients.

And the House took Perdue up on his offer to sacrifice one of his own initiatives by zeroing out $14.3 million to hire "parent recruiters" in schools with high truancy rates. The governor had suggested cutting the program to $8.7 million.

"We're not saying we don't like the program," Harbin said. "(But) there are things we have to do in education, and that's what we should focus on."

The House also is proposing a bond package worth more than $1 billion, including $50 million for reservoirs and $26 million for harbor dredging at the Port of Savannah.

However, lawmakers also axed more than $24 million in bonds for improvements around the state Capitol complex, including a planned state history museum at the former site of the World of Coca-Cola.

House Democrats supported the budget written by Republican leaders.

But before the vote, Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, complained that a portion of the austerity cuts still remain.

"I want to commend you for funding that $90 million," he said. "The challenge for us now is to fund that other $50 million."

The General Assembly also balked at the way Perdue recommended cutting the mid-year budget to adjust to his reduced revenue estimate.

The governor suggested doing without $65 million he had requested in January for new school buses and school technology improvements.

But since lawmakers left the money in, Perdue will have to either get those cuts out of the state's $1.6 billion in reserves or veto the spending.