Georgia House passes budget as GOP rejects Democrat Medicaid expansion

Georgia House chamber at the state Capitol in Atlanta. (Daniel Vorndran via Wikimedia Commons)

ATLANTA – Georgia’s House on Friday voted 136-31 to pass a $27.2 billion budget, putting back a fraction of the money that was cut last year and spurning a Democratic attempt to more widely expand the Medicaid health insurance program.

House Speaker David Ralston and others touted the House’s effort to add more money for mental health care in House Bill 81, replacing some of the money that was cut last year.

The budget, which begins July 1, now moves to the Senate for more debate.

The state would spend $27.2 billion in state tax money, plus billions more in federal money and money raised in fees and tuition. That’s up from $26.6 billion in state money this year.

Gov. Brian Kemp had already proposed spending $22 million more on mental health, but House members want an overall increase of $58 million. The House would spend more on service providers, including $12.3 million for a 5% rate increase for providers of adult intellectual and developmental disability services.

“This House of Representatives recognizes the need for these services and is prioritizing them accordingly,’' said Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican. That’s still less than the House had proposed for mental health, but Ralston said ``it is just part of the beginning and we’re going to keep working on it.’'

House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, proposed an amendment that would have diverted money toward a full expansion of the Medicaid program as envisioned under President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul. The Republican Kemp has been pursuing a more limited expansion that would impose work or education requirement to receive the benefits. President Joe Biden’s administration has moved to freeze President Donald Trump’s approval of the program, and Beverly said Georgia should abandon the plan and seek full expansion.

“Republicans are now on record saying we’re not going to use money to expand Medicaid, not even a small amount to think about how we’re going to implement it, and I think that’s a tragedy for Georgians,’' Beverly later told reporters.

The House rejected the amendment 98-68 on a near party-line vote.

There’s more money for universities than Kemp proposed, and pay raises for some state employees who officials say they’re having trouble retaining because pay is too low, including assistant district attorneys, state troopers, bank examiners, medical examiners, food inspectors and driver license office employees.

“They testified they were actually losing employees to McDonald’s, because McDonald’s was paying better salaries than they were,’' House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican, said of the Department of Driver Services.

Most cuts from last year have not been restored, though, with total spending still below what lawmakers had originally planned for this year. Kemp could choose to raise his estimate to recognize that tax revenues are running well ahead of projections and the state is likely to get billions in federal aid soon, but state officials continue to voice the fear that higher-than-normal state income tax refunds could drain that pot of money.

“There are still storm waves on the horizon,`` England said.

By law, lawmakers can’t spend above Kemp’s revenue estimate.

Kemp could also choose to dip into the state’s $3 billion savings account. Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat, urged withdrawals, saying that ``loading up’' the savings account while services lack funding is like a person who has plenty of money in the bank going hungry.

“I think we have to be very cautious in terms of drawing down large sums out of the rainy day fund and I applaud the governor for his measured approach to that,’' Ralston said.

Much of the increased spending would be paid for by the federal government continuing to pick up a larger share of the existing Medicaid program, letting Georgia pay less.

The House agreed to some key Kemp initiatives, including plans to spend $40 million on a rural innovation fund and $10 million to extend high-speed internet in rural areas.