House OKs ASU arts center

ALBANY -- Albany State University students and faculty can let out a tentative sigh of relief after a $1.8 million bond proposal for engineering and design work on ASU's long-delayed Ray Charles Center was included in the House budget blueprint Tuesday afternoon.

Funding for the Ray Charles Center is not the only bright spot for Southwest Georgia to be included in the state's 2011 budget plan.

Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, confirmed in a telephone interview with The Herald Tuesday that $10 million has also been included in the budget plan to secure rights-of-way for State Highway 133 in a proposed $300 million bond package for state Department of Transportation projects.

Bond money for Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus and Abraham Baldwin College in Tifton were also included in the tentative 2011 budget plan.

"Southwest Georgia will do well under this plan," said Rynders, who is a member of the House Appropriations and Transportation committees. "Our hope now is that the Senate will approve it."

Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, whose House District 151 includes Albany State, said she is pleased that the Charles Center bond package made it through into the plan.

"It has been five years that we have worked on this project. I tried to do my job representing Albany State, and I spoke to (ASU President) Dr. (Everette) Freeman about it today, and he was very excited," Fullerton said Tuesday afternoon.

Gov. Sonny Perdue approved funding for the ASU project last year, but it was cut from the final budget that was passed by the Legislature. That action led to verbal skirmishes among Rynders, Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Albany, and Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, over speculation as to why the funding was removed from the budget.

First and second-graders in Georgia would no longer have to take standardized tests under the $17.8 billion budget that cleared the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.

Those tests -- along with free PSAT and Advanced Placement tests -- were scrapped to save money in the House budget blueprint.

The budget adopted Tuesday would eliminate Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests for first- and second-graders, for a $1 million savings. Those tests are not required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. The budget also would require students to begin paying for PSAT tests and AP tests. The tests would still be free for those students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Approved by a 61-8 vote of the House Appropriations Committee, the budget plan also would eliminate more that $1 million in state funding for sports and music halls of fame in Macon.

The budget would pay to archive the collections at the state's music and sports halls of fame, which have never raised enough money through visitors to pay their operating expenses.

The budget also takes a whack at spending in Perdue's office. It would strip away his office of homeland security, placing the operations elsewhere. The Georgia Council for the Arts -- which operates under the governor's office -- would be eliminated. Eliminating both programs would save roughly $3 million overall.

State employee layoffs are sprinkled throughout the spending plan, although a precise total wasn't available Tuesday. Budget writers said some state agencies scrambling to cut costs might again need to force staff to take unpaid furlough days to balance their books.

The budget covers the fiscal year beginning July 1.

State spending in Georgia has plummeted $4.6 billion over the last two years as the economy has soured. Perdue had originally budgeted $18.1 billion, but after 15 months of back-to-back revenue declines, he lowered that by about $400 million.

Georgia's budget woes have thrown this year's legislative session into overtime. Lawmakers are typically done with their business by mid-April but this year they are still plodding along at the state Capitol with six days remaining in the 40-day session. Legislators are required by the Georgia constitution to pass a budget.

Lawmakers have been wrangling for months over how to fill a $785 million budget shortfall after 15 months of declining revenues. And even as the fiscal year 2011 budget began to move Tuesday there were still key funding disagreements to be resolved.

The state Senate has yet to pass a bill that would hike dozens of fees in order to raise about $96 million in new cash. And while both chambers have passed a new tax on hospitals, the Senate tacked on a tax break for insurers. House leaders are expected to strip that amendment, which would send the proposal to a conference committee. The budget plan under House scrutiny counts on that hospital tax to funnel about $160 million to health care in the state.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.