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Georgia Senate approves $32.4 billion budget with big cuts to higher education, GPB funding

The cuts come as Senate and House lawmakers fight over hospital regulations. The differences will have to be settled before a 2024 budget is approved.

ATLANTA — The Georgia Senate passed a $32.4 billion spending plan Thursday for the upcoming fiscal year that cuts roughly $100 million from the state's higher education budget and slashes millions in state funding for Georgia Public Broadcasting.

The Senate voted 51-1 in favor of the budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which begins July 1. 

Senators proposed cutting $88 million from the state's college and university teaching budget, an $18 million university system health insurance increase, and roughly $3.7 million from Georgia Public Broadcasting. 

The cuts to GPB represent a 26% decrease in state funding compared to budget proposals from Gov. Brian Kemp and the state house.

The proposed higher education cuts come as lawmakers feud over hospital regulations — a topic that has consumed the final days of the legislative session.

A group of Senate Republicans, backed by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, want SB 99 passed. The legislation would ease requirements for building healthcare facilities in counties with fewer than 50,000 residents.

READ: Georgia House and Senate in power struggle over budget

Under SB 99, medical providers would no longer need a certificate of need to open a new facility or offer a new service in these smaller counties. The program has been in place since the 1970s. Opponents of SB 99 argue it could harm existing facilities.

Supporters, however, argue the bill will improve access to affordable healthcare and promote competition. In committee meetings, supporters have highlighted a proposed 100-bed facility in Butts County that could be built if SB 99 is signed.

Jones could benefit from the Butts County facility. Capitol Beat News Service reports that the hospital could be built on land owned by Bill Jones, the lieutenant governor's father.

SB 99 and the proposed budget cuts could also complicate Wellstar Health's potential take over of the Augusta University Health System.

Cobb County-based Wellstar has drawn the ire of some local and state legislators after recently closing two metro-Atlanta hospitals.

The $106 million in cuts to higher education nearly matches the $105 million Kemp gave to Augusta University to update its electronic records system in this year's amended budget. (The state university system has $504 million in carry-forward funds from last year that it can use, Sen. Blake Tillery said.)

Some see the $105 million payment as a gift to Wellstar if the takeover is complete, the Associated Press reports. Wellstar, which operates the 25-bed Sylvan Grove Hospital in Butts County and a 160-bed facility in nearby Spalding County, is one of the state's medical providers that opposes SB 99, the Associated Press reports. 

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, told 11Alive the cuts weren't retaliation for Wellstar's opposition to SB 99.

"I don't think its as direct as some people are wanting it to be," Tillery said. "But I do think there are a lot of questions in the room about Wellstar and what the $105 million we paid earlier this year went to."

The cuts to GPB aren't related to the hospital fight. The spending plan would drop state funding for the station from $14.4 million to roughly $10.7 million.

Tillery said other "competing stations" have asked the Senate why they were funding GPB, a competitor. Tillery didn't identify those stations.

"Why are we picking winners and losers? I don't think we want to be in that space," Tillery said. "There's no hatred of GPB."

The budget also gives GBI investigators, troopers and game wardens $6,000 raises while teachers and other state employees get a $2,000 boost.

The Georgia House, which first approved the plan, will have to OK the amended 2024 budget before it heads to Kemp's desk. 

Tillery said concerns over budget disagreements are overblown.

"We have 52% agreement with the governor and the house — all three of us together," he said. "We got 80% agreement with the house already. I'm sure we're going to get it all worked out."

The final day of the legislative session is March 29.

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