The Gold Dome at the Georgia State Capitol is featured on April 4, 2022. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

The Georgia House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a $32.5 billion fiscal 2024 state budget Thursday after a debate over whether to restore full funding to Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship program.

The budget, which passed 167-1 and now moves to the state Senate, would increase spending by $2.2 billion – or 7.4% – over the fiscal 2023 budget the General Assembly adopted last spring.

The House version of the spending plan prioritizes mental health, adding $51.3 million to the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities (DBHDD) beyond Gov. Brian Kemp’s request, and public safety, providing a $2,000 raise to state law enforcement officers on top of the $2,000 increases earmarked for teachers and most of the state workforce.

The budget also provides additional raises to DBHDD employees, state forestry workers and Department of Driver Services personnel, state agencies that have been harder than most by turnover.

“In an economy where every business is struggling to find staffing … filling state jobs has become even more difficult,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, told House lawmakers.

The House approved Kemp’s request for $13.1 billion to fully fund the state’s Quality Basic Education k-12 student funding formula.

However, House budget writers rejected the governor’s plan to restore full funding for HOPE scholarships for the first time since the program was cut in 2011 during the Great Recession.

Instead, the House spending plan would increase HOPE coverage of student tuition from the current 90% to 95% and redirect the remaining 5% to the Zell Miller Scholarship program, the component of HOPE that goes to students with high school grade-point averages of at least 3.5, and to health benefits for public pre-kindergarten teachers.

Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, objected to failing to fully fund HOPE. She pointed out that the lottery-funded HOPE program has built up $1.9 billion in reserves, $1.1 billion more than is required by law.

“The lottery is doing great,” she said. “We have the money to return the promise of HOPE to all our HOPE scholars.”

Evans voted for the budget anyway because, as she put it, 95% is better than 90%.

As is the case every year, the House also added some bond-financed construction projects to the list Kemp recommended. The House adds include $14.3 million to design, construct and equip college career academies around the state, $4.1 million for improvements to the Synovus Center for Commerce and Technology at Columbus State University, and $3.3 million to renovate the patient treatment mall at East Central Regional Hospital in Augusta.