Seven takeaways from Day 1 of budget hearings

Members of the House and Senate listen to the presenters at the Joint Appropriations Committee Hearing. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

State lawmakers returned to work Tuesday, set to spend the rest of the week in joint hearings on the proposed amended fiscal year 2024 and fiscal year 2025 budgets. Tuesday’s agenda focused mainly on education.

State economist Bob Buschman opened Tuesday’s hearings, laying out how Georgia has fared economically and will continue to perform even as a mild recession is projected for this year. Other presenters included state Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, the heads of the University System of Georgia, the technical college system and the lottery system as well as the agriculture commissioner and the head of the Public Service Commission.

Fiscal year 2024 runs from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024. Fiscal year 2025 is July 1, 2024 to June 30, 2025.

Gov. Brian Kemp made a brief appearance via zoom from Davos, Switzerland where he’s attending the World Economic Forum. Kemp reiterated his commitment to pay hikes for teachers and other state workers, more than a $1 billion for the state’s infrastructure and other highlights from his State of the State address and budget proposals released last week.

“We’re making careful and strategic investments,” Kemp said.

Here’s seven takeaways from Tuesday’s Joint Appropriations Committee hearings:

  • A mild recession is looming. Inflation is slowly coming down from a 42-year high, but core inflation remains near 4% from year-to-year as of August, Buschman said, also noting that the revenue forecasting in the budget is conservative, as personal and corporate income taxes have experienced recent declines, and sales tax is flat. “We’ve had phenomenal growth in recent years,” he said, but noted that a mild recession in the first half of this year is likely. Mortgage rates continue to affect the housing market, labor costs continue to rise, companies and state agencies are still looking for workers and office vacancies remain high, Buschman noted. But he added Georgia has more of a  diverse mix of industries than it once had.
  • Bus driver pay isn’t uniform.  School districts are getting an additional $205 million for student transportation in the governor’s budget. Woods told lawmakers that bus drivers aren’t certified employees so their pay isn’t on the state pay scale. The money will go to counties where district officials decide bus drivers’ pay.
  • HOPE Scholarship to hit $15 billion.  The state has awarded a total of $14.6 billion in HOPE scholarships since it launched in 1993. That figure is expected to hit $15 billion by June, said Lynne Riley, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission. College tuition for HOPE Scholars will continue to be fully funded in 2025 under Kemp’s proposal.
  • Lots of construction, more security at tech schools.  The governor’s budget proposals would give $1.8 million to add 22 new police officers, Greg Dozier, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, told lawmakers. The proposed amended FY 2024 budget for the technical college system totals a little over $540 million, up from $499.86 million for the original FY 2024. Over $5.5 million  of that will go to design and build a commercial truck driving range at Augusta Technical College, for example. The system, however, will see a $13 million cut in its FY 2025 budget. There’ll be renovations and new construction for tech schools in Walton, Spalding, Lowndes, Bibb and other counties in FY 2025. 
  • Pre-K slots in Georgia will not increase, but preschool teachers will be paid better. Amy Jacobs, head of the Department of Early Care and Learning, said the proposed $2,500 raises for pre-K teachers and assistant teachers will help early childcare education providers to recruit and retain teachers who “need to be paid a living wage.”  

Classroom sizes would drop to to 20 students from 22 over a four-year period. Sen. Billy Hickman noted that only 61% of the state’s eligible 4-year olds are currently enrolled in lottery-funded pre-K programs, and asked if that means those two extra kids will have to “stay at home.” Jacobs assured him that new classrooms, perhaps at new program sites, will be found for such students as classroom sizes are reduced. 

  • Pay hikes for targeted ag jobs. The state Agriculture Department has 80 job vacancies, Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper told lawmakers. A four-year college grad joining the department would make about $39,500. So a 4% cost-of-living adjustment plus a $2,000 targeted salary enhancement for, say, a consumer protection employee would bring that person’s salary to more than $43,000 a year, Harper said. He also noted that the governor recommended allocating $150,000 to the agency’s Feral Hog Task Force to address the problem of crop degradation due to feral hogs.
  • The controversial Plant Vogle is up and running —  finally.  Plant Vogle’s Unit 3 went into operation as of July 31, Public Service Commission Chairman Jason Shaw told legislators. “It is providing carbon-free electricity to an estimated half million Georgia homes and businesses, and will work day and night over the next 80 years or so,” he said. Unit 4 is expected to go into operation later this quarter, Shaw said. These are the first U.S.-built nuclear reactors in over 30 years,Shaw added.

Want to know more or follow along with this week’s budget hearings? You can view the presenters’ budget documents here

Have questions? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajill or at [email protected] and Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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