Georgia House Aims to Ease School Health Insurance Costs – WABE

Georgia’s House budget writers want to transfer $100 million to the state employee health plan to reduce the effect of increases in health insurance premiums for public school districts.

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday incorporated that change as it voted to approve House Bill 18. It amends the state budget, which ends on June 30. House members are likely to vote on the revised budget Thursday, which includes $2.4 billion in additional spending after Gov. Brian Kemp increased projected revenue.

The Republican governor’s $1 billion plan to give property tax breaks to homeowners would cost $100 million less than Kemp’s previous estimate, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett said. The committee wants to shift that $100 million to stretch over three years a 67 percent increase in health insurance premiums that districts will have to pay for non-teachers, instead of requiring districts to pay the full $457 million in one year.

House members rejected Kemp’s plan to give $25 million in grants to school systems to help kids make up for missed learning, instead adding that money to what Kemp already proposes to spend on school safety grants .

Other changes include one-time bonuses of $250 to retired state employees and money to provide a place other than a hotel room for foster children if a home cannot be found for them.

Most of the extra money would fund a second round of $1 billion in state income tax cuts, which would return between $250 and $500 to taxpayers. It also would pay for the property tax rebates, which Kemp said would give the typical homeowner about $500. Both need separate legislative approval.

Kemp is calling for $32.6 billion in state tax money to be spent this year. Including federal and other funds, total spending would rise to $61.6 billion.

Local superintendents have complained about increased health insurance bills for employees who do not hold teaching certificates, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and classroom aides.

The state’s health benefit plan voted to raise employer contributions by 67 percent, saying it pays more than it collects in premiums. Premiums that employees pay directly will not change.

The state pays the employer share for teachers and other certified employees and began paying $1,580 a month in January, up from $945. The state plans another $423 million for certified workers for the remainder of the 2023 budget and then $846 million in the 2024 budget, which begins July 1.

But school districts pay for non-certified employees. School systems would see the employer share jump from $945 to $1,580 a month starting in January 2024. The insurance plan calls for districts to pay $457 million more a year, covering about 60,000 employees statewide.

Floyd Fort, superintendent of the 1,400-student Pellam district in southwest Georgia, said it would cost more than $300,000 a year to cover the raises for Pellam’s 41 non-certified employees. He said his school system, with an annual budget of $16 million, is already “maxed out” in property taxes and that he is looking at laying off staff to cover costs. That could mean less training or other services, he said.

“You can’t balance a budget with carbon paper,” Fort said.

Instead of $635 a month all at once, Hatchett said premiums would increase in three annual increments of $211 a month if lawmakers use the $100 million.

“Most of our school systems have good cash balances right now — not all. So, hopefully, they should be able to absorb it,” Hatchett said. “But they have been heard.”

House lawmakers want to spend $138.8 million on school security grants, up from Kemp’s proposed $115.7 million. They rejected Kemp’s plan for $25 million in tuition loss grants, saying districts still have nearly $1 billion in federal COVID-19 funds left to spend on improving student achievement. Shifting that and some other money into security grants would provide $60,000 per school, but lawmakers would let districts decide where to spend the money.

The chamber is proposing to spend $14.5 million on one-time bonuses for 55,000 retirees in the State Employees Retirement System, an average of about $250 per retiree, Hatchett said. Those retirees haven’t seen a regular cost-of-living increase, although they did get a 1.5 percent increase in July. Hatchett said the amount was an “opening offer” and said he hoped the senators could come up with more money. The typical ERS retiree receives a pension of about $2,000 per month.

House members committed $5 million to provide “alternative housing options” for children in foster care. The Department of Family and Children’s Services currently places 50 to 60 foster children a night in hotels or county offices. They are often children with complex behavioral and psychiatric needs, and state officials say they cannot find foster homes, crisis stabilization units of psychiatric facilities to take the children.

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