University System of Georgia balks at budget cut

The Arch on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia is pushing back on a $66 million cut to its fiscal 2024 budget the General Assembly approved on the last day of this year’s legislative session.

Lawmakers signed off on the reduction Wednesday after House and Senate budget conferees shrank the cut from a $113 million reduction from the system’s teaching formula in the version of the spending plan the Senate adopted last week.

“This is an incredibly disappointing outcome, given the work done over the years by our state leaders to elevate higher education and send Georgia on a path to ascension,” system Chancellor Sonny Perdue said Thursday. “It will have a significant impact on institutions and the services that students and families depend on to advance their prosperity and help Georgia succeed.”

Perdue said the cut comes on top of a reduction of about $230 million the system sustained at the beginning of the pandemic three years ago, funds that have never been restored. The system also was already due to receive a $71.6 million reduction for the coming fiscal year before the $66 million cut because of enrollment declines.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery cited that declining enrollment as justification for the cut. Tillery, R-Vidalia, suggested the system could offset the reduction by dipping into carry-over funds not spent this year. The system had $504 million in carry over funds on its books, according to an audit released last fall.

Tillery said the system’s Board of Regents has the flexibility under the Georgia Constitution to make sure the reduction is allocated in a way that won’t disproportionately affect the system’s smaller institutions. The money comes to the system in the form of a block grant, which the regents can spread around as they see fit, he said.

But Perdue said carry-forward funds are earned and retained at the individual institution, so the system does not have the ability to move the money from one institution to another. Eighty-two percent of those funds are concentrated at only six schools – including the system’s four research institutions: Augusta University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, he said.

The University of Georgia would absorb the largest cut – $11.9 million – followed closely by an $11.3 million reduction at Georgia Tech, according to figures the university system released Thursday.

Gov. Brian Kemp has 40 calendar days from the end of the legislative session to sign the budget, giving him in this case until May 8.

Below is a list of the reductions each of the university system’s 26 institutions would sustain:

Institution$66 Million Cut
Augusta University($6,845,000)
Georgia Institute of Technology($11,287,000)
Georgia State University($8,333,000)
University of Georgia($11,935,000)
Georgia Southern University($3,879,000)
Kennesaw State University($5,653,000)
University of West Georgia($2,020,000)
Valdosta State University($1,634,000)
Albany State University($832,000)
Clayton State University($860,000)
Columbus State University($1,233,000)
Fort Valley State University($673,000)
Georgia College & State University($1,180,000)
Georgia Southwestern State University($458,000)
Middle Georgia State University($1,249,000)
Savannah State University($564,000)
University of North Georgia($2,542,000)
Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College($566,000)
Atlanta Metropolitan State College($208,000)
College of Coastal Georgia($464,000)
Dalton State College($488,000)
East Georgia State College($246,000)
Georgia Gwinnett College($1,625,000)
Georgia Highlands College($590,000)
Gordon State College($335,000)
South Georgia State College($301,000)
USG Total($66,000,000)


General Assembly OKs $32.4B state budget

The Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – A $32.4 billion state budget with pay raises of $4,000 to $6,000 for state law enforcement officers and $2,000 increases for other state workers, teachers, and university system employees gained final passage in the General Assembly Wednesday.

The Georgia Senate passed the fiscal 2024 spending plan 54-1 late Wednesday afternoon. The state House of Representatives followed suit 170-3 shortly before midnight on the final day of this year’s legislative session.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, increases state spending by $2.2 billion, or 7.4%, over the budget the legislature adopted last spring.

The spending plan fully funds Georgia’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) k-12 student funding formula with a record $13.1 billion in state dollars.

House and Senate budget conferees also added $6.3 million to provide 17 million free meals to public school children from low-income families.

“Kids aren’t able to learn when they’re hungry,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin.

The budget also covers 100% of tuition for Georgia’s HOPE scholars for the first time since 2011.

However, House and Senate budget conferees agreed to a Senate proposal to redirect $66 million from the University System of Georgia’s teaching formula to shore up Georgia’s Medicaid program. The university system could make up the reduction by dipping into carry-over funds, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

Several senators sought assurances from Tillery during the floor debate on the budget that the cut wouldn’t hurt Georgia’s public colleges and universities, particularly the smaller institutions with fewer resources.

“I think our university system provides the best educational opportunities in the country,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens.

Tillery said the university system has $504 million in carry-over funds, according to a report released in October. He said the formula cut doesn’t have to disproportionately affect the smaller schools.

“It’s essentially a block grant,” he said. “[The university system Board of Regents] can spend it any way they want.”

The final version of the budget also added $117 million for mental health services, $47 million above Gov. Brian Kemp’s request.

The spending plan includes $11.1 million for the staffing that will be needed in the coming weeks to redetermine assessments for Medicaid enrollees following the “unwinding” of additional federal benefits that were provided during the pandemic.

“Even with these increased funds … it’s going to be difficult,” Tillery said. “Sometimes, there’s just things dollars can’t do.”

The budget also funds construction, planning and/or design of 24 buildings, primarily projects on university campuses, money Tillery said might not be available next year.

“We will continue to keep a close eye on the financial clouds gathering on the horizon,” Kemp told House members early Wednesday evening during his annual address on the last day of the session.

The budget now moves now to the governor’s desk for signing.

School voucher measure narrowly fails in state House  

Justin Wang and Ishan Mahajan of Lambert High School in Forsyth County speak to Georgia Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, about a school voucher bill. (Photo credit: John Arthur Brown)

ATLANTA – Legislation to offer private-school vouchers to Georgia students attending low-performing public schools failed Wednesday night in the state House of Representatives.  

The bill would have created $6,500 vouchers for Georgia students to use for private-school or home-schooling expenses if they were assigned to attend a public school in the lowest-performing quartile of public schools in the state.  

The bill passed in the Senate earlier this month but ultimately failed to survive in the House, losing on an 85-89 vote.  A group of mostly rural Republicans crossed party lines to vote against the measure.  

The House Rules Committee made several last-minute changes to the bill on Wednesday in an effort to make the proposal more palatable. The amendments would have tied the scholarship amount to changes in the state’s education funding formula and changed the method for determining which schools qualify as low performing.  

But those changes failed to convince enough legislators to vote for the bill.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, argued school voucher measures are popular with voters of all backgrounds, including rural voters and Democrats. She said Georgia students deserve a choice about where they study.  

“Some students may learn best in a home school environment, in a charter school … and, yes, sometimes in a private school,” she said. “An education can change a life. Who are we not to give some students another option?”  

Democrats argued the voucher measure would divert funds from public education and that the $6,500 scholarship amount would be insufficient to cover private school tuition.  

“This bill does nothing but perpetuate the gross inequities that have existed in our state’s education system for far too long,” said Rep. Miriam Paris, D-Macon. “Maybe if we spent as much time and resources on addressing the root issues related to student achievement in our state … like getting literacy taken care of, maybe then we might begin to see some real progress.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Bill requiring harsher penalties for gang recruitment clears General Assembly 

State Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, speaks against a bill imposing tougher penalties for gang recruitment. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The state Senate gave final passage Wednesday to legislation imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for gang recruitment. 

Senate Bill 44 requires judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members. It would also impose tougher penalties for those who recruit someone under age 17 or someone with a disability to a gang, requiring at least a 10-year sentence.    

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has made cracking down on gangs an important part of his legislative agenda this year.  

“There’s no room for street gangs in Georgia. This bill is going to help prosecutors across the state. It’s going to help children,” said Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, one of the governor’s Senate floor leaders. “It’s going to really provide serious penalties for someone that tries to recruit a child into a life of crime by asking them to join a street gang.”  

The Georgia House of Representatives amended the bill earlier this month to restrict judges’ abilities to allow people accused of certain crimes to be released without bond, called an “unsecured judicial release” in legal parlance.  

The bill would prohibit judges from allowing people accused of certain crimes  to go without bond if they have been convicted of bond jumping within the past five years or if a bench warrant for a failure to appear in court has been issued to the person within the past five years.  

Judges would also be required to consider the accused’s criminal history before allowing release without bail. 

The bond-related additions to the bill drew criticism from Senate Democrats.  

“These cash bail provisions are not limited to gang activity,” said Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs.

“Let’s say you miss court for some reason and there are plenty of human reasons to miss court.[If] you get charged with improper lane change or speeding … now all of a sudden the judge does not have discretion for five years to let you go on your own recognizance. They have to put a cash dollar value on your bail.”  

Hatchett dismissed those concerns. 

“If you do not show up for court and you have a bench warrant – let’s say you had work – and then you go back to court, you tell them, ‘Hey, I didn’t show up.’ “ Then, the warrant will be recalled,” he said. “Once the warrant’s recalled, the five-year clock no longer applies. That’s what it says in the bill.” 

The legislation passed on a 30-20 party line vote and now heads to Gov. Kemp’s desk for his signature.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

State Senate sends elections bill to Kemp’s desk

State Sen. Max Burns

ATLANTA – The Republican-controlled Georgia Senate gave final passage Wednesday to legislation prohibiting local elections offices from receiving private donations to help run their operations.

Senate Bill 222 cleared the Senate 32-21 along party lines. The House passed the bill on Monday in another primarily party-line vote.

The bill was sparked by complaints from Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere that private donations have flowed into elections offices in Democratic counties in recent elections, including a $350 million contribution by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the nonprofit Center for Technology and Civic Life.

Those out-of-state private dollars were contributed in an effort to influence the outcome of those elections, Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, told his Senate colleagues Wednesday.

“This issue is one of basic fairness,” he said.

But Democrats argued Senate Bill 222 is an Republican effort to choke off financial assistance Georgia’s large Democratic counties need to make their elections run smoothly.

“Why are we removing a tool to help our elections officials run better elections?” asked Sen. Nabilah Islam, D-Lawrenceville.

But Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, the bill’s chief sponsor, said private funds will still be available to local elections officials. The legislation centralizes the distribution of private donations to local elections offices by authorizing the State Election Board (SEB) to distribute the money.

“You can get all the third-party funding you choose from the SEB,” Burns said.

Senate Bill 222 now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.