Doug Holt: 'Big budget' gets scrutiny in House

Doug Holt

Doug Holt

With crossover day behind us, the House returned to a more committee-intensive posture as we began to work through bills the Senate had passed through the previous week. There will be two more weeks in this year's legislative session, during which we will first review those roughly 100 bills from the Senate, and then work through differences in bills that have passed both chambers, but not in exactly the same form. We did see some floor time during the week, considering 8 bills and resolutions.

The most important bill we saw was HB 106, which contains the 2014 fiscal year budget, also known as the "big budget." Budget bills are one of the few types of bills not subject to the crossover day limit. In fact, the budget is the only bill we technically must pass each session, because the state constitution requires it. The big budget was a little late coming to the floor this year, mainly because the House Appropriations Committee needed some extra time to study the impact of the federal sequestration on our finances. If the U.S. Congress doesn't intervene, the impact will ultimately amount to about $240 million in reductions for the 2014 fiscal year. Thus, HB 106 has seen some adjustments which, in combination with existing powers of the governor on spending, will hopefully allow the state to adapt without requiring the governor to call for a special session of the General Assembly to fix things.

This budget reflects our ongoing slow recovery from the recession. Revenues continue to grow at a mild pace, which will allow a roughly 2.8 percent increase in the budget, from $19.3 to $19.8 billion. Given inflation and population growth, this will still not be an increase in spending per capita for the state. In fact, on that per capita basis, this budget is 18 percent below that of 2004 -- the state has become a much leaner organization. Of the approximately $500 million increase to the budget, roughly half will go to K-12 education, primarily to accommodate enrollment increases and the property tax equalization component of the QBE formula. Pre-K will receive an increase sufficient to return to a full 180-day program. The University System will receive roughly $60 million for enrollment growth. The other area that will see a significant increase of funding is health, where Medicaid and other health-related programs will require about $200 million in order to handle their enrollment growth. A roughly $12 million increase will be seen in judicial and public safety areas to continue the implementation of last year's criminal justice reform, in combination with this year's juvenile justice reform. Finally, $42 million will be made available as extra road funding, going both to DOT and local governments -- something badly needed.

All the areas of increased spending actually add up to more than $500 million, which, in combination with increased costs for the state health plan, means that other areas of the budget saw continued cuts in the 2 to 3 percent range. On a smaller and less dramatic scale, we are seeing the same spending dynamic as the federal government, in which health care expenses are slowly crowding out other budget concerns.

All in all, this is another tight and carefully composed recession budget. The folks on the Appropriations Committee have continued their intense work in scrutinizing all budget areas that has become doubly necessary with the recession, to include phasing in zero-based budgeting methods. Their efforts produced a very responsible budget, which I was pleased to support, and which passed 159-15.

The Georgia Cattlemen's Association held a reception on Thursday morning, and I spoke with Charles Woodward and Brent Galloway while I was there. We discussed a Senate bill of interest to their industry.

State Rep. Doug Holt may be reached at 404-656-0152, or by email at Doug@DougHolt.org.