The Georgia Capitol at night (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The General Assembly signed off on Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 state budget Wednesday night during the waning hours of this year’s legislative session.

The Georgia Senate passed the budget unanimously early in the evening. The state House of Representatives followed suit 148-21 several hours later, less than one hour before lawmakers adjourned after 40 days under the Gold Dome.

While the state is expecting to receive $4.6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery also credited Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen Georgia’s pandemic-buffeted economy earlier than many states for easing the budget process.

House and Senate budget writers were able to restore a large portion of the 10% across-the-board spending cuts they were forced to make last year at the height of the pandemic.

“There is no chance this budget would have run this smoothly had Governor Kemp not reopened Georgia when he did,” said Tillery, R-Vidalia.

Chief among the restored funds in the new budget, which takes effect July 1, is $567.5 million in “austerity” cuts to Georgia public schools the General Assembly imposed last year.

The spending plans also adds about $40 million more for mental health services than Kemp recommended in the budget he submitted to lawmakers in January.

Another $10 million would be used to expand the deployment of rural broadband in Georgia. Those funds are in addition to $20 million included in the fiscal 2021 mid-year budget the governor signed in February.

Lawmakers provided pay raises to help retain employees in state agencies that have suffered from high turnover, including the departments of Agriculture, Banking and Finance, Driver Services, Corrections and Juvenile Justice.

The joint House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the final version of the budget allocated $36.7 million in bond funding to a new convocation center at Georgia Southern University that will be named in honor of the late state Sen. Jack Hill R-Reidsville, and his late wife Ruth Ann. Both died within weeks of each other last spring.

Lawmakers also approved $21 million in bonds for a conference center at Lake Lanier Island, $5 million to renovate the Christenberry Field House at Augusta University and $3.5 million to design the planned Gateway Building on the campus of Georgia Gwinnett College.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, questioned why the budget still includes $382 million in austerity cuts to K-12 education.

Tillery said the $6.9 billion Georgia schools expect to get from the American Rescue Plan will more than make up that shortfall.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the influx of federal funding is timely. But he left his House colleagues with a warning.

“Federal funds are never permanent,” he said.

The budget now goes to Kemp’s desk for his signature.