Gov. Nathan Deal released a budget plan Wednesday that increases overall spending and calls for $700 million worth of building projects, including the purchase of a facility at Fort McPherson that could house some state agencies.
He also recommended borrowing $59 million for a new facility at Georgia Tech and $25.2 million for a health building at Georgia Gwinnett College. Deal also suggested spending $15 million to buy land around the Georgia World Congress Center, although officials would not speculate on whether it would be used for a new Atlanta Falcons stadium.
The proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 does not include a cost-of-living increase for more than 200,000 teachers and state employees. State employees have not seen such an increase since January 2008. Teachers haven't had one since 2009.
Still, the budget plan would increase total spending by about 5 percent to nearly $19.2 billion in fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1. That's up from this year's nearly $18.3 billion and is the biggest increase since late 2008.
The modest increase comes as Georgia is still rebounding from the Great Recession. Deal's budget marks the start of what will be a lengthy and politically charged process before the budget is approved this spring. The proposal provides a blueprint for this year's priorities.
Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the budget shows Georgia is in a better situation than it was a few years ago. While the plan includes some cuts, it shows the budget is beginning to stabilize, he said.
"The state isn't really able to put back in all the money it's cut," he said, "but the state isn't making major additional cuts."
Educators and some Democrats said they were happy Deal allocated about $258 million to public schools and colleges to accommodate enrollment growth. But school leaders said they're still struggling from years of budget cuts.
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said she was equally pleased and concerned over the governor's budget proposal.
She said Deal's initiatives to make the state more competitive for business are good, but Deal has proposed cutting energy sales taxes for businesses, which will cost the state $140 million. There was no clear indication in her first reading of the proposed budget of where that money will come from.
"We are going to be looking for the details," she said.
She fears the cuts will come from services such as Medicaid. If doctors refuse to see Medicaid patients because of low reimbursement rates, she said, the sick could end up in emergency rooms "where costs are exponentially more expensive."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said the budget plan put the focus on needed areas, including education, transportation and job growth. While state revenue has increased, it has not returned to pre-recession levels, he said.
Deal's proposal would streamline several agencies and move programs from one department to another.
He recommended cutting the Department of Labor's funding from $37.7 million to $14.4 million. The department would lose vocational rehabilitation programs, processing of federal disability claims, and the Warm Springs Institute, which is one of the nation's oldest rehabilitation centers. The number of jobs would drop from 3,652 to 1,668.
Labor Commissioner Mark Butler was still reviewing Deal's budget and needed more time before discussing the implications, spokesman Sam Hall said.
Education appears to be one of the biggest budget winners, as schools and colleges take up about 55 percent of the budget.
While pleased with more money for enrollment growth, public school leaders were disappointed to see no funding to recoup past cuts. Local school systems have lost about $1.1 billion in recent years. Statewide, 120 out of 180 districts are teaching fewer days because of budget cuts.
While Deal touted a $55.8 million increase for teachers based on their experience and degree level, the bump is for step increases that only some teachers would receive, said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the 82,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
When Deal announced more money for education, the Barrow County school board was approving a school calendar for 2012-13 that included six possible furlough days. Whether the system uses them depends on how education fares during the budget process, Superintendent Wanda Creel said.
"We have really cut to the point we don’t have many more things we can even go in and cut," Creel said.
The University System of Georgia didn't get all the money it requested for enrollment growth, but considering the system didn't get any of that money for fiscal year 2012, it's still ahead, Essig said.
Deal's plan would give the system about $76 million more for enrollment, but the budget also includes a $35 million cut in other areas.
Students were happy their campuses would receive some additional money but worried their schools are not getting everything they need.
"It is of the utmost importance to me that my degree remains valuable and that my university continues to be able to claim to be one of the United States' finest opportunities," said Mallory Davis, the student government president at the University of Georgia. "I hope that higher education continues to receive the attention it deserves."
Staff writers Nancy Badertscher, Christopher Quinn and James Salzer contributed to this article.