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Budget disagreement holding up university projects

By Dave Williams

dave.williams@graypub.com

ATLANTA - Caught in a budget flap between Gov. Sonny Perdue and Georgia lawmakers, the state university system is holding $2.1 million the legislature earmarked for a series of projects this year.

In an unusual move last spring, that is being disputed by legislative leaders, the governor "redirected" that money, ordering the Board of Regents not to spend the funds for those purposes.

"We just feel we have an unresolved issue," Bill Bowes, the university system's vice chancellor for fiscal affairs, told a House committee Tuesday. "Until it is resolved, we feel the best thing to do is hang onto the money."

Lawmakers weren't happy with the unusually large number of vetoes Perdue handed down last May when he signed this year's $20.2 billion budget, but they didn't argue with his legal right to do so.

However, they continue to question Perdue's budget redirects, which took up about half of his 16-page veto message.

Rather than outright removing funds from the budget, as the governor does with vetoes, the redirects essentially instructed state agencies to ignore the legislature's intent for how that money should be spent.

In an interview last month, Perdue said he redirected spending primarily when the legislature had buried projects within larger line items, making it impossible to veto the project without affecting the entire line item.

He said that in many of those instances, lawmakers had appropriated more money for a project than the affected state program or agency could afford.

"There has to be a way for the legislature to express their intent regarding money," he said. "[But,] if the intent is to try to seal or bury [a project] into a larger appropriation, that's the language we need to veto ... It doesn't have the weight of law."

Of the $2.1 million in university system projects redirected by Perdue, the largest is $750,000 the General Assembly provided to help launch an umbilical cord blood bank for use in stem cell research conducted without human embryos.

In his veto message, the governor said he supported the project, but didn't want to take those funds away from ongoing commitments to the Georgia Cancer Coalition.

On Tuesday, Bowes told members of the House Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee that the Georgia Research Alliance has come up with $730,000 for the blood bank, so the money won't have to come out of the cancer coalition's budget.

Several of the budget redirects aimed at the university system nixed planned improvements at various campuses around the state.

In the largest of those, the legislature had set aside $375,000 for improvements at Middle Georgia College in Cochran.

"A lot of these small campuses do quite a lot with a little," said Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta.) "It worries me that they don't get the resources they need."

Rep. Richard Royal (R-Camilla), the committee's chairman, assured Bowes that lawmakers aren't blaming university system officials for what essentially is a dispute between Perdue and the General Assembly.

"We recognize that those who have encountered redirects are caught between the governor's office and the legislature," he said. "We're not here to chastise you."