The Georgia Senate passed a $25.9 billion fiscal 2021 state budget Thursday that would avoid some of the deepest spending cuts lawmakers have been facing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The budget, which cleared the Senate 40-13 on the next-to-last day of the 2020 legislative session, would reduce state spending by $2.2 billion. That’s substantially less than the legislature’s appropriations committees had been contemplating earlier in the budget review process.

The smaller reduction would allow lawmakers to cancel all furlough days for teachers and state employees and restore some of the painful reductions that had been slated for behavioral and public health, public safety, agriculture, rural hospitals and child welfare services.

The six-member joint House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the budget deal Thursday took advantage of a more optimistic revenue forecast Gov. Brian Kemp released recently after receiving a smaller-than-anticipated decline in tax receipts resulting from the coronavirus-driven recession.

Legislative budget writers also drew down $250 million from the state’s general fund reserves and $50 million from Georgia’s share of the national tobacco settlement to help offset some of the impact of the cuts.

As a result, the budget would reduce state spending across the board by 10%, a significant improvement over the 14% cuts the governor and legislative leaders had ordered up from state agencies.

Still, the conferees were forced to make difficult decisions, said Rep. Terry England, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“There was no option but to have to make some of these cuts,” said England, R-Auburn. “They were not done out of malice but out of necessity.”

While the final version of the budget would do away with furloughs for teachers, it still slashes the state’s K-12 student funding formula by more than $900 million.

However, England noted that local school districts will able to offset some of that reduction with about $457 million in federal aid earmarked for Georgia schools in one of the coronavirus-relief measures passed by Congress.

The budget also includes $19.7 million to fully fund six months of Medicaid coverage for low-income new mothers in Georgia. While the General Assembly just passed a bill authorizing the post-partum coverage expansion, the money to pay for the initiative had been in doubt.

The budget conferees also found enough funding to restore grants to county health departments that had been under threat.

But Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson argued the cuts could have been reduced further or eliminated entirely had the Republican-controlled General Assembly not lowered Georgia’s income-tax rate two years ago.

The dismal budget climate was not just the result of the lockdown of Georgia’s economy to discourage the spread of COVID-19, said Henson, D-Stone Mountain.

“The tax cuts of the past have put us in a vulnerable position,” he said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers passed a separate bill earlier Thursday reducing their own annual salaries by 10% to show solidarity with the spending cuts the various state agencies are absorbing. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, volunteered last week to take a 14% reduction in his yearly pay.

The House will vote on the budget on Friday, the final day of the 40-day legislative session.

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