Budget, education, transportation discussed at legislative session
Published 5:38 pm Friday, January 22, 2016
By Darlene Taylor
Special to The Post-Searchlight
On Monday, January 11, 2016, we began the second year of the 153rd session of the General Assembly. We have an ambitious legislative agenda to complete with only 40 legislative days to accomplish the task. We immediately got down to business. The House convened every day this week to take up business, committees began meeting to discuss legislation, and Governor Deal delivered his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate. On our first day we received a surprise visit from Georgia’s own Miss America, Betty Cantrell! The former Miss Georgia was honored on the House floor and helped us kick off the session with a resounding version of “Georgia On My Mind.”
On a more somber note, the General Assembly met at the close of our first day of session for a memorial service. The Women’s Caucus organized this special service to honor the five Georgia Southern University nursing students that lost their lives last year in an automobile accident. Each member of the caucus wrote a personal note or bible verse which was placed in a special treasure box presented to the families of these nurses.
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On Tuesday we learned of good news for Georgia Agri-business. Georgia Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall was elected President of the American Farm Bureau Federation. He had been the Georgia leader for 9 years. Even more good news for us in South Georgia is that our own Gerald Long from Bainbridge will assume the top leadership role of President of the Georgia Farm Bureau. Agriculture is our number one industry and we are fortunate to have leadership in these important positions.
EDUCATION AND GEORGIA’S ECONOMY
On Wednesday, before a joint session of the House and Senate, with members of the judiciary, Constitutional State Officer, staff, members of the media and special guests present, Gov. Deal’s delivered his sixth State of the State address. Gov. Deal outlined Georgia’s successes and opportunities for improvement and growth for the coming year and beyond.
Gov. Deal began his address by highlighting the significant economic progress the state has made since the Recession of 2008. The good new began with the Georgia Rainy Day Fund, or our financial reserves. They have increased to more than $1.43 billion and continue to grow each year. He noted the reserves had dropped by over $2 billion from 2007 to 2011 and were almost completely depleted during that time. Gov. Deal also emphasized the state’s lowest post-recession unemployment rate of 5.6%. In addition, Georgia currently has the third lowest construction unemployment rate in the nation at 4% percent, due to more than 22,000 new manufacturing jobs, which have generated over $900 million in wages to the state. These positive figures were great news and provided an encouraging outlook.
As our state has seen tremendous growth in manufacturing and construction, Gov. Deal announced his continued plan to strengthen Georgia’s workforce and address the jobs skills gap that many employers encounter. Gov. Deal targeted 11 areas under the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grants where students receive full tuition coverage from HOPE for training in 140 different programs and technical institutions. As part of his promise to bridge the skills gap, Gov. Deal called on the General Assembly and higher education leaders to add another field to this important list and proposed an addition of $17.1 million of the FY2017 budget to continue the great work already in place through this program.
Comprising more than half of the state’s proposed annual budget, education is still the top priority for Gov. Deal. The governor’s FY2017 budget proposal calls for a 3% pay raise for teachers to come from an additional $300 million appropriation for K-12 education to the local school boards. Gov. Deal noted that in the past three years, 94% of school systems used this additional funding to reduce or entirely eliminate furlough days, and with this funding, teacher furlough days should be a thing of the past.
In addition to his education budget proposal, Gov. Deal also addressed some of the suggestions from his Education Reform Commission, which was tasked with examining our entire education system and reporting back to the governor and the General Assembly with its recommendations for reform. One recommendation that came out of the Commission is a student based funding formula to replace the Quality Based Education (QBE) formula, which has been in place for more than 30 years. The new funding formula would assess funds based on characteristics of the individual student, as opposed to “rigid, impersonal criteria,” and will even incorporate updated explanations for poverty. The governor called for the State Department of Education and local school systems to evaluate their testing requirements and eliminate unnecessary tests. The General Assembly will spend careful time and consideration reviewing the information and recommendations of the Commission before making any major changes.
Also in his State of the State address, the governor repeated an announcement made earlier in the week in which members of the General Assembly joined Governor Nathan Deal and representatives from Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) rolled out a comprehensive plan for sustainable transportation infrastructure improvements in Georgia. The new infrastructure maintenance plan will be based on funding from the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, one of the legislatures’ top priorities last session. The comprehensive plan included two project lists. The first is for 18 months and valued at $2.2 billion. According to Gov. Deal, this plan will use roughly 60% of the user fees collected from last year’s transportation bill for repair and maintenance of existing roads, with the remaining 40% going towards the construction of new roadways and bridges. The second list is a ten year list, valued at more $10 billion. This proposal is vital to maintaining safe access to our roads and bridges throughout the state. Our district has projects included in these plans. These road improvements will also serve as a way to continue to promote economic development in Georgia. We commend Gov. Deal and the Georgia Department of Transportation for following through on this initiative.
Finally, after announcing his goals in the State of the State address this week, Gov. Deal officially released his $23.7 billion state budget proposal to the General Assembly for the upcoming fiscal year. Just as the governor listed education as his top priority in his address, he also made education a top priority in his proposal of the state’s budget, with $300 million additional funds intended for teacher salary increases, and $26.2 million for Pre-K teacher pay raises. The governor’s budget proposal also includes $825 million in new state general and motor fuel funds for the state’s transportation network, and funding for public safety, health care, and economic development.
These are just a few highlights from Gov. Deal’s budget proposals. The General Assembly will use the governor’s recommendations as a starting point when we review these recommendations in our Joint House and Senate Budget Hearings and Joint Appropriations subcommittee hearings this coming week. We look forward to diving deeper into the details of the governor’s budget plans to ensure that we are spending your tax dollars in the most efficient way possible.
Now that session is underway, we want you to know that we will be working hard every day we are in session in Atlanta. We hope you will take the opportunity to review updates like this to keep you informed about legislative matters. You can also stay in touch by visiting our website at www.house.ga.gov to watch a live stream of the House in action, as well as archived committee meetings, and review legislation that we are considering. I welcome you to reach out to us and share your thoughts and opinions as we move throughout the legislative session this year. Please contact me at 404-656-0178 at the Capitol or by email at email@example.com