Amended FY 2015 budget approved by House
The House voted unanimously Jan. 29 to approve amendments to the state budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2015, which ends June 30. Changes to the $20.9 billion budget add $276 million worth of appropriations, 70 percent of which is devoted to education.
This includes $128.5 million to local school systems to cover enrollment growth and $35 million for wireless Internet capacity expansion in our schools. The House version of the budget also designates $7.4 million for equalization funding grants that will provide additional funds to K-12 systems that qualify based on per student wealth rankings. Higher education was also set as a budget priority, with funds designated for new engineering and military scholarships and the creation of the Georgia Film Academy. The amended budget also includes $750,000 to support the Governor's newly created Education Reform Commission.
There are also several significant additions for economic development in our state, including an appropriation of $20 million in grants toward job-creating economic development projects through the OneGeorgia Authority, as well as $20 million for Regional Economic Business Assistance grants. OneGeorgia and Regional Economic Business Assistance are two of our state's most effective economic development tools for attracting new jobs to Georgia. In addition, $1.5 million is set aside to keep Xpress buses running in 13 metro counties, and $4.5 million will go to support routine maintenance in the Department of Transportation.
In the area of health and safety, more than $5 million is allocated for driver education programs to improve safety on Georgia's roads. Funds are also set aside to expand the length of the Department of Corrections' Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program from six to nine months, and the Board of Regents is issued $4.8 million for medical cannabis trials at Georgia Regents University.
An additional $4.9 million is designated for 103 new child welfare case workers.
For the first six months of FY 2015, state revenues have increased by 5.7 percent over the same period last year. The supplemental budget legislation (HB 75) now goes to the Senate for its consideration, while the House Appropriations Committee turns its full attention to the proposed $21.8 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, which starts July 1.
Transportation Funding Act: This week, members of the House of Representatives leadership introduced legislation that would provide an additional $1 billion per year in revenue, which would be used for infrastructure maintenance and improvements in Georgia's transportation system.
If approved, HB 170 would be the House's response to the report of a special Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding, which concluded that Georgia needs a minimum of $1 billion to maintain the state's existing roads, bridges, air and transit system infrastructure.
Key elements of the proposed legislation include:
• Converting the current 7.5 cents-per-gallon state excise tax on gasoline, which when combined with sales tax amounts to a total of about 27 cents per gallon, to a consolidated excise tax of 29.2 cents per gallon, with no sales tax added. The excise tax would be indexed to account for increases in vehicles' gas mileage. Cities and counties would each be allowed to levy a local excise tax of 3 cents per gallon, if approved by voters in local referendum, to account for the loss of local sales tax revenue.
• Implementing an annual fee on electric or natural gas-powered vehicles, which also use the state's roadways but are not subject to gasoline taxes. The fees would be $200 for personal cars and $300 for commercial vehicles and would not be charged on hybrid vehicles.
• Adding $100 million to the bond package in the state budget to finance transit projects.
The study committee's report noted that Georgia currently ranks 49th in terms of state spending per capita on its roads, and additional investment is needed to relieve costly highway congestion and prepare for continued growth and increased use of freight and shipping lanes.
Medical Cannabis: Supporters of legislation to allow the use of cannabis oil strictly for the treatment of medical conditions have announced that a major manufacturer of the substance is planning deliveries to Georgia if HB 1 is successful.
In its current form, the legislation would provide immunity from criminal prosecution for persons who possess cannabis oil, a derivative of marijuana which has been effective in the treatment of certain conditions, including children's seizures. The sponsors of HB 1 said the manufacturer would ship the substance directly to Georgia families.
The bill is now under consideration in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
Thursday, Jan. 29, was the eighth legislative day of the 2015 session of the General Assembly. Please feel free to contact me throughout the session with your thoughts on these and other issues, or whenever I can be of service. My legislative office is located at 508-A Coverdell Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334; phone 404-656-0213 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.