A two-year budget agreement struck this week by congressional leaders would clear the way for billions of dollars to be sent to Georgia hospitals, military bases and local farmers, but broader disagreements over immigration and the national debt prompted some local lawmakers to think twice about supporting the legislation.
The $320 billion bill would loosen the grip of strict 7-year-old spending caps on the Pentagon and other federal agencies such as the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also seeks hundreds of smaller policy changes, several of which have been long wanted by Georgia lawmakers.
Among the parochial interests that would receive new funding:
- Local hospitals — The agreement would avert two years of funding cuts to safety-net hospitals such as Grady Memorial and the Atlanta Medical Center that treat a disproportionate share of indigent patients. Grady alone had warned it would lose $49 million in funding in the first year if the cuts took place. The deal would also extend funding for community health centers such as Atlanta-based Mercy Care for two years and extend federal support for the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program, the parent to PeachCare, for four additional years. That’s in addition to the six years of funding CHIP received in the last stopgap measure.
- Military bases — Congressional leaders agreed to fork over an extra $165 billion for national defense-related activities over two years. That money would undoubtedly trickle down to aid Georgia’s eight military installations, 118,000 active-duty, reserve and civilian personnel and the communities that support those bases. A Defense Department flush with cash also would mean more money for equipment such as airplanes, providing help to defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, which builds the wing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in Marietta.
- Plant Vogtle — The boosters of Georgia’s beleaguered nuclear project undoubtedly found some welcome news with the budget agreement, which calls for exteding the timeline for a previously promised nuclear production tax credit. The tweak would guarantee the project some $800 million in federal tax credits. Georgia utility regulators conditioned their approval of the roughly $23 billion project in December on Congress approving the extra money.
- Cotton farmers — The bill would reclassify cottonseed — the core of cotton plants that are used to make livestock feed, oils and fertilizers — so that farmers can tap into a new pot of federal money. The provision is a workaround to the current system of subsidies that is designed to put more money in cotton farmers’ pockets until the new farm bill can be finalized later this year. Farmers in Georgia and elsewhere say they have been pinched by years of low commodity prices and other unfavorable economic conditions.
The agreement also sets the table for the state to receive more federal funding in the months and years ahead.
It includes new dollars for rebuilding work following Hurricane Irma and other natural disasters, to be doled out gradually by several government agencies.
It also earmarks $20 billion in new funding for infrastructure projects, including rural broadband, which has been a major focus for state lawmakers. It is not clear how that program would be structured or whether any local projects would qualify.
While the budget agreement sets high-level spending limits for the government, the line-by-line choices for individual federal programs would come later, when Congress writes and debates appropriations bills. That’s when the CDC and other agencies would find out how much money they have to work with for the remainder of the 2018 and the 2019 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
The deal does set aside $6.4 million in extra funding for the Elberton-based Southeastern Power Administration, which markets power generated by two-dozen hydroelectric plants across the Southeast, in order to mitigate issues created by the recent funding patches.
Georgia’s two senators and 14 congressmen had all personally pushed for at least some of those parochial interests over the past year, but broader political fights prompted some to balk at the deal.
House Democrats were livid that Speaker Paul Ryan would not commit to holding a vote on immigration legislation, and some signaled they would oppose the agreement as a show of solidarity to the so-called Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought here as children. President Donald Trump said he would end their legal status on March 5 unless Congress acted. Other more moderate Democrats suggested the spending deal was too good to pass up.
Republicans, meanwhile, were facing crosscurrents of their own Thursday.
Many were enticed by the White House-backed bill, particularly the extra defense money. But conservative groups such as Heritage Action and Club for Growth ramped up pressure for GOP lawmakers to vote against the deal because of how much it would add to the national debt.
“Republicans in Congress should … work to pass a budget that balances by making tough choices and eliminates our more than $20 trillion in debt,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the Cherokee County-based chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. “Anything less would be an abandonment of their promises to the American people.”
Indeed, several of the state’s GOP lawmakers had campaigned as fiscal conservatives hellbent on whittling down the debt, not adding to it. Many indicated Thursday that they were struggling with whether to support the agreement.
“It’s a trillion-and-a-half dollars of debt over the next 10 years,” said GOP U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who has made debt reduction one of his signature political issues. But, he added: “It would catch up on the military for two years. We’ve got the cottonseed program fixed. We’ve got the nuclear production tax credit in, which we wanted. So those things are important to Georgia.”
Most lawmakers made themselves — and their staffs — scarce Thursday in the run-up to votes on the deal, avoiding reporters’ questions. Others said they were still undecided as they scrambled to read the contents of the 600-odd page bill.
“I’m not going to tell anybody how I’m going to vote until I have time to read the bill and go through it,” U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans, said earlier Thursday.
One Georgia Republican who stood firmly in the “yes” column was U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. The third-term senator supported the deal because it funded many of his top legislative priorities, including several long-sought health care changes.
“It’s an extraordinarily good bill for Georgia,” he said.