Georgia House leaders cut teacher pay raise in half

ATLANTA — Budget writers in the Georgia House want to give teachers a $1,000 pay raise instead of the $2,000 Gov. Brian Kemp is seeking, using money freed up to boost pay for other state employees and protect programs from budget cuts.

The House Appropriations Committee on Monday approved House Bill 793, its version of the state's 2021 budget, which would spend $28.1 billion in state money and $54.2 billion once federal and other money is added. The measure is expected to be debated in the full House later this week and the Senate would then get its say.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican, said he believes teachers deserve the $2,000 Kemp proposed, but said other state agencies have needs. So the House would spend $140 million on raises for K-12 and preschool teachers.

“We'll come back again next year and look at the additional $1,000 promised to get them to $5,000 in the governor's first term," England said. “We understand, at this point, that it's going to be a little disappointment to some.”

Of the roughly $200 million that a lower raise would free up, England said lawmakers would “Use those dollars to make adjustments for all state employees and repair or put back in place a lot of the essential services as well.”

All other state employees would get at least a 2% raise based on merit. The House plan would target up to 5% in additional pay raises for positions that suffer high employee turnover. England said those raises would cost more than $120 million across all agencies and would improve morale and reduce training costs.

Lawmakers are trying to write a budget even as state revenue growth has slowed following lawmakers' cut of the state's top income tax rate in 2019. The GOP governor had proposed more than $300 million in cuts this year, even while proposing the pay raise. Republican House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge has continued to push for a second cut in the state's top income tax rate, from 5.75% to 5.5%. That decrease is estimated to cost $500 million to $600 million.

The House budget doesn't explicitly make room for the tax cut, which Kemp has proposed lawmakers skip. However, England said there might be "enough flexibility” in state revenues to go forward, citing efforts in the General Assembly to increase online sales tax collections and reduce spending on prescription drugs. Lawmakers are also considering changes to income tax deductions that would increase revenue.

England said House budget writers agreed with about 80% of Kemp's cuts, which sought to eliminate more than 1,200 vacant positions.

But in some areas, the House spending plan goes in a sharply different direction. More than $30 million over Kemp's budget would be added for mental health and substance abuse treatment in the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

“I'm glad to see some of the health care, some of the community health, some the mental health issues are being dealt with,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat.

The House would give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation another $6 million to support crime lab and other operations. The state Department of Agriculture, proposed for sharp cuts, would get $6 million more than Kemp proposed. Most cuts to county public health departments and physician training would be avoided, and public defenders would get more.

“We realize that the proposals we're making are, in some cases, pretty massively different than those they recently proposed,” England said.

The House would also add $4 million to increase the number of prekindergarten slots available statewide by 1,000, to a total of 85,000, and increase reimbursements for each classroom. The state would spend $25 million more to increase the number of public school counselors to one per 450 students.