The Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a $32.5 billion federal budget for fiscal year 2024 after a debate over whether to restore full funding to Georgia’s HOPE grant program.
The budget, which passed 167-1 and now goes to the Senate, would increase spending by $2.2 billion — or 7.4% — over the fiscal 2023 budget that the General Assembly passed last spring has.
The House version of the spending plan prioritizes mental health and adds $51.3 million to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) over Gov. Brian Kemp’s request, as well as public safety and an additional boost to state law enforcement officials $2,000 in increases of $2,000 are earmarked for teachers and most of the state workforce.
The budget also provides additional pay rises for DBHDD employees, state forest workers and Department of Driver Services employees, state agencies who have been tougher on revenue than most.
“In an economy where every company is struggling to find staff…it has become even more difficult to fill government positions,” Matt Hatchett, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, R-Dublin, told the House of Representatives legislator.
The House of Representatives approved Kemp’s request for $13.1 billion to fully fund the state’s K-12 student funding formula for quality basic education.
However, House Budget Clerks rejected the governor’s plan to restore full funding for HOPE grants for the first time since the program was cut back in 2011 during the Great Recession.
Instead, the House spending plan would increase HOPE’s tuition coverage from the current 90% to 95% and redirect the remaining 5% to the Zell Miller Scholarship program, the component of HOPE that goes to students with a high school GPA of at least 3.5, and on health services for public pre-kindergarten teachers.
Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, protested not fully funding HOPE. She pointed out that the lottery-funded HOPE program has built $1.9 billion in reserves, $1.1 billion more than the law requires.
“The lottery is going great,” she said. “We have the money to return the Pledge of HOPE to all of our HOPE grantees.”
Evans still voted for the budget because, as she put it, 95% is better than 90%.
As every year, the house also added a number of bond-financed developments to Kemp’s recommended list. House grants include $14.3 million to design, build and equip collegiate career academies statewide, $4.1 million for improvements to the Synovus Center for Commerce and Technology at Columbus State University and $3.3 million for the patient treatment center renovation at East Central Regional Hospital in Augusta.