ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Senate on Tuesday rolled out a budget that would slice $87 million from the state’s public universities in a power struggle with the House over hospital funding and permitting.
The budget dispute looms as a threat to the General Assembly completing its work by its self-imposed deadline of Wednesday, House Republican leaders warned, setting up a high-stakes endgame as new House Speaker Jon Burns and new Lieutenant Gov. Burt Jones lead end-of-session talks for the first time.
“I plan on working through the weekend and trying to get an agreement between now and Wednesday,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, a Dublin Republican. “I hope we don’t have to have a special session.”
Lawmakers would have to extend the session or Gov. Brian Kemp would have to call a special session if no budget passes, as the state must have a spending plan before the 2024 budget year begins July 1.
The fight over the budget is intertwined with the lieutenant governor’s push for a bill that could allow a new hospital to be built in his home county, a move that could financially benefit his family if it’s built on land his father owns.
It’s also mixed up with an attempt by Wellstar Health System to assume control of Augusta University’s hospitals and with a House push for additional changes to the state’s mental health system.
Attempts by Jones to pass a bill legalizing sports betting, although largely offstage right now, could also figure into disputes in the session’s final days.
Neither Jones nor Kemp responded Wednesday to requests for comment.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, said lawmakers also refused to fund an $18 million health insurance increase sought by the University System of Georgia, saying the issue “was not discussed with the legislature” in advance.
“We just were sent the bill after the fact,” Tillery wrote in a text to The Associated Press. “That’s probably not the best way to approach appropriations.”
University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue said in a statement that the “decrease would significantly impact all 26 USG public colleges” and “impact teaching budgets, staff and students.” The former governor said officials are confident differences can be worked out.
Together with the $87 million sliced from other funding to universities, it equals the $105 million Augusta University was given in the amended 2023 budget, at Kemp’s behest, to purchase a new electronic medical records system.
Some see Kemp’s move as a giveaway to Wellstar if it completes negotiations to take over the Augusta University hospitals. The Marietta-based hospital system is already under fire for closing Atlanta Medical Center in downtown Atlanta and Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point.
Wellstar and others have been opposing proposed changes that would allow new hospitals to be built in counties with fewer than 50,000 residents without state permission through what’s called a certificate of need. Senate Bill 99 is particularly aimed at allowing an undisclosed entity to build a new hospital in Jackson County southeast of Atlanta, where Jones is from, and where Wellstar currently operates the 25-bed Sylvan Grove Hospital. But it appears dead in the House after a committee tabled it.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that a new hospital could be built on land that Bill Jones, Burt Jones’ father, has purchased near Interstate 75. Renderings from Butts County depict a hospital on some of the land. The lieutenant governor’s office has said land hasn’t been designated for the hospital.
Tillery said Tuesday that Wellstar’s opposition to the Jackson County hospital is related to the budget cut.
“There have been a lot of questions about Wellstar opening a hospital in one area while closing two hospitals in other communities, while also fighting to keep others from opening,” Tillery wrote. “Seems duplicitous.”
In a further escalation against Wellstar, the Senate Finance Committee voted late Wednesday to revoke some of the tax exemptions tied to Wellstar’s nonprofit status, amending a House bill to penalize any hospital system that had closed a top-level trauma center, a clause satisfied only by Wellstar’s closure of Atlanta Medical Center.