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Governor would keep spending flat
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ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday unveiled a $40.8 billion budget plan that would keep state spending relatively flat, seek ways to cover rising health care costs and add limited funding for scholarships and dredging at the Port of Savannah.

The Republican governor faces twin budget pressures — from a recession that has driven down state tax collections and from an increase in people seeking government-funded health care. Given the tepid recovery from the Great Recession and the wrangling over federal fiscal policy, Deal's administration is not counting on major growth.

His spending plan contains nearly $19.9 billion in state funds, roughly a 3 percent increase over last year's budget.

"While Georgia's economy continues to grow, uncertainty remains at both a national and global level," Deal said in a letter to lawmakers. He said his budget plans "maintain a cautious approach to the current and next fiscal year, focusing on meeting the basic needs of our growing state, eliminating waste and streamlining government, while planning for contingencies in the event larger economic uncertainties impact revenues here at home."

Deal has proposed:

— Making changes to control the cost of Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled. In a weak economy, the number of people enrolling in Medicaid has grown, forcing an increase in state spending. To compensate, Deal earlier ordered state agencies to make budget cuts. His administration has also proposed several policy changes, including cutting payments to medical providers when the sick are readmitted to hospitals for preventable conditions and setting some limits on prescription drug coverage.

— Restoring 10 days of instruction that were previously cut from a pre-kindergarten program;

— Slightly increasing the value of lottery-funded HOPE scholarships for college students. Deal and lawmakers previously made deep cuts to the program as lottery revenues slumped.

— Proposing a new HOPE grant to assist students in the technical college system who are pursuing high-demand certificates and diplomas;

— Adding roughly $300 million in legally required spending to compensate school districts for growth and for teacher salaries;

— Providing $50 million in state funding for dredging the Port of Savannah to accommodate larger cargo ships. Significant federal funding is still required to finish the project.

— Directing an additional $25 million toward an ongoing Deal initiative to expand the state's water supply, including by developing reservoirs. Georgia has been locked in a long-running water dispute with neighboring Alabama and Florida.

— Providing $5 million in grants to encourage cities and towns to develop options for juvenile offenders other than expensive incarceration.

— Allowing for $15 million in borrowing to build a parking deck and road access for the future College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta and renovations to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

— Approving nearly $9.6 million in borrowing to replace state police cars, a helicopter, a fire truck and repair or construct training facilities.

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