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Deal seeks raises for Georgia teachers, state police, caseworkers

Gov. Nathan Deal asked lawmakers Wednesday to approve a record $25 billion state budget that includes pay raises for teachers and state employees and would fund a few expensive construction projects he’s long supported.

Deal’s spending plan for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1, would provide 2 percent pay raises for teachers and most state employees, while giving 19 percent more to child welfare caseworkers and 20 percent hikes to state law enforcement.

While the state’s 100,000 teachers would receive raises, the governor did not eliminate the $166 million in “austerity cutbacks” to schools districts that have been built into state budgets since the early 2000s.

Such reductions in what districts would get from the state school funding formula — which reached more than $1 billion some years — have been whittled down by Deal. The teacher pay raise would cost the state about $160 million, which is about the same amount that is still being withheld from districts.

“From the governor’s perspective, the priority should have always been providing pay raises for teachers, and that was really not done across the board this current fiscal year,” said Teresa MacCartney, the director of Deal’s Office of Planning and Budget.

Last year lawmakers approved 3 percent more for school districts, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in October that only about 40 percent of the systems passed the money along as raises.

Education groups were happy to hear Deal’s call for an increase in salary.

“We’re certainly glad there was a pay raise added, and I applaud the governor for putting it in the state salary schedule,”said Sid Chapman, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, one of the state’s largest teacher groups.

Deal had announced the 20 percent pay raises for law enforcement last fall.

“These brave men and women don a badge and vest each day as they go to face uncertainty on their shifts in service of their fellow citizens,” the governor said during his address to lawmakers Wednesday. “They protect our lives and property, and it is only fitting that they should be paid a competitive salary.”

The state budget helps fund the education of more than 2 million students and provides health and nursing care for about 2 million Georgians. The state funds road improvements and prisons, economic development initiatives and cancer research, business and environmental regulation, parks and water projects. It creates thousands of private-sector jobs through construction projects.

Including federal funding, Deal’s budget for the upcoming year would spend $49 billion.

Most extra money that the state takes in pays for increases in programs — such as education and health care — that see increased enrollment and costs each year, said Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff.

But one of the ways Deal and lawmakers have been adept at pushing their priorities in the past few years is through borrowing money for construction projects.

Deal’s proposal includes $1.15 billion in new borrowing. High on the list is $105 million to build a new state courts building on the site of the former archives building in Atlanta, which is expected to be brought down in a few months.

Deal has put money in the budget previously to prepare the archives building for implosion and design the courts building.

The bond package also includes $73 million more to complete a new technical college campus in Deal’s home county of Hall.

Deal had added $10 million to the budget in 2015 to buy the land and $48.3 million last year to get the construction started. Combined, if approved, the state will have borrowed more than $130 million to move an outdated Lanier Technical College from one end of the county to the other.

The AJC reported Tuesday that Deal’s budget plan would put $50 million into a new state-owned training center that’s designed to teach students and educators how to combat hacking and other forms of cyberwarfare. The state would borrow $100 million for bridge repair, replacement and renovation projects, and $55 million for improvements at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.

An additional $500 million would go toward k-12 and college building projects.

Under Deal’s budget plan, doctors would get an increase in payments for treating Medicaid patients, and about $21 million would go to increasing autism services for children on the program, which provides health care to the poor and disabled.

“The $25 billion in state appropriations included in this budget reflect conservative fiscal principles and the solid economic growth Georgia continues to enjoy,” the governor said. “By focusing on key priorities such as cybersecurity, education and public safety, we are taking necessary steps to protect our citizens and ensure that our fiscal responsibility translates into sustained economic growth across the state.”

Wesley Tharpe of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said the governor’s proposal made only relatively small changes to current state programs, in part because so much of what the state spends is ruled by how many Georgians use services such as education and health care programs.

“It’s really sort of a status quo budget,” he said.

Lawmakers gave Deal generally favorable remarks.

“Deal had some really good ideas. I’m excited to hear he’s really going to get behind improving the (Division of Family and Children Services’ child welfare) program and increasing teacher pay across the state,” said state Rep. Geoff Duncan, R-Cumming.

State Rep. Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville, said: “I thought it was a great State of the State message. Our state troopers will be getting a raise; our teachers will be getting a raise and our DFACS workers, too.”

But state Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, said he was hoping to hear Deal take a bigger role in helping teens who drop out of school with few skills.

“I am looking for more money for technical colleges to train people,” Jackson said. “I am still looking for economic opportunity for those young folks who don’t have any chances and don’t have a high school diploma. I would like to have heard more talk about nontraditional education.”

State lawmakers will hold initial hearings on the governor’s recommendations for the upcoming budget year next week.

Staff writers Michelle Baruchman and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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