- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia would increase its education spending under a budget plan Wednesday from Gov. Nathan Deal that comes after schools districts repeatedly shortened their school years and cut teacher pay to cope with a bad recession and slow recovery.

Deal, a Republican, proposed a $42.3 billion spending plan for the financial year starting in July, a nominal increase of roughly 3 percent over the current year. The plan would spend roughly $20.8 billion in state money, largely from personal income and sales tax collections. Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated General Assembly started their budget reviews Wednesday and will ultimately decide in the coming weeks whether to accept the proposal.

Setting the budget is among the biggest decisions state politicians will face during a legislative session that senior leaders want to keep short because it is an election year. While local school officials have long decried funding cuts, raising education spending can be smart politics. Deal will face Georgia’s schools superintendent, a longshot candidate, in a Republican gubernatorial primary, then run against Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter.

Deal proposed spending $547 million in additional funds on the K-12 school system, though a large slice of that money is required by law to keep up with growing student enrollments. Deal would allocate $314 million in new funds for local school systems that can decide how to use it. Deal said he wants school systems to restore days that they trimmed from the calendar, stop furloughing teachers and increase salaries.

“These funds will provide our local school systems with the resources and flexibility to address the most critical needs of their students and teachers,” Deal told lawmakers in prepared remarks.

Democrats countered that Georgia lags the nation in graduation rates and that large numbers of school districts are no longer teaching students for 180 days a year. Carter proposed that Georgia financially prioritize by setting its education budget first, then pass a second spending plan that funds the rest of state government.

“Today, our education budget is a shell game,” he said.

In the long-run, spending by Georgia’s government is relatively flat. When adjusted for inflation, per-person spending under Deal’s proposal is about the same as in 1990, according to calculations from the governor’s office.

College and technical students could see gains under the plan. Deal proposed raising the state’s HOPE scholarship and grants for by 3 percent over last year. It includes $10 million to establish low-interest loans for students in Georgia’s technical colleges.

Under the plan, Georgia would hire an additional 202 new workers in its human service agencies to look after children and the elderly. The head of Georgia’s child welfare agency had warned lawmakers last year that agency staffing could not fall much lower without problems. Since then, the agency has been under scrutiny after questions over whether caseworkers could have done more to prevent two child deaths.

The budget plan would also include:

- $29 million for employee raises;

- More than $720,000 to raise the salaries of food inspectors and reduce staff turnover;

- Roughly $66 million to fund water supply projects across Georgia. Georgia faces long-running water disputes with neighboring Alabama and Florida, and Deal has backed building more reservoirs and water storage projects.

- $35 million in bonds to fund the deepening of the Port of Savannah.


Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rhenryAP .

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