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Senate budget plan hikes worker fees
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Senate approved an $18.25 billion spending plan on Wednesday that increases health insurance premiums for state employees and teachers by 20 percent, while adding $2.5 million in state funds and federal grants for a new trauma communications network.

The Senate voted 47-4 to approve the spending blueprint for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The House version was approved earlier this month.

"It's a very difficult year because it's the end of the stimulus funds," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, referring to the loss of more than $1 billion in federal aid. "In some cases we replaced it, in some cases we couldn't."

The budget also adds $18 million to the Governor's Emergency fund to pay interest on the Unemployment Trust Fund Loan due later this year unless the federal government decides to waive the fee.

Hill said he hopes to find a way to lower the insurance premium increase to closer to 10 percent, but acknowledged the state will need more revenues to offset the shortfall. While he said he is encouraged by the state's increasing revenues, Hill said he hopes additional state auditors — funded in part from a $23.5 million boost to the revenue department — can chase down tax scofflaws to help fill Georgia's coffers.

Hill said he estimates the tax revenues could generate more than $120 million next year and more than $230 million in fiscal year 2013.

The Senate proposal is in agreement with the plans submitted governor and the House to provide state funds for scholarship programs that will lose lottery funding after the Legislature's HOPE bill goes into effect later this year, including the Engineer Scholarship and the Georgia Military Scholarship.

The Senate proposal also includes $59 million in additional funding for the Department of Behavioral Health as part of the settlement funding agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, including funding for respite homes and help for mental health consumers in the community.

Both chambers must now reconcile their versions for final passage before the session ends on April 14.

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