Georgia on economic upswing, Governor tells lawmakers
The 2014 Georgia legislative session convened Jan. 13 in Atlanta, and following a positive State of the State address by Gov. Nathan Deal, members of the House of Representatives got to work on numerous proposals that will be considered in the weeks ahead.
The economic message the governor delivered to lawmakers is that Georgia is on the upswing. The state’s unemployment rate is at its lowest point in five years as a total of 217,000 new private sector jobs opened up in the past three years.
Gov. Deal said Georgia is well positioned to continue its robust economic recovery thanks to enactment of a number of tax reform measures, including elimination of the sales tax on energy for manufacturing, as well as building up the state’s reserve funds by 518 percent and maintaining the state’s AAA bond rating from all three major agencies.
The result has been a steady 5 percent increase in state revenues during the first half of fiscal year 2014, reflected in the $20.8 billion budget proposal the governor outlined for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. The plan includes $547 million in additional public education appropriations, aimed at restoring instructional days, ending teacher furloughs, raising teacher pay and upgrading Internet service in all Georgia schools.
The budget also includes a 3 percent increase in funding for HOPE Scholarships and Grants, as well as an expansion of the HOPE Grant program in the state’s technical colleges to cover four additional areas of training and paying full tuition for technical college students who earn and maintain a 3.5 or higher grade point average. The plan also includes $10 million to be spent on a 1 percent interest loan for technical college students.
The governor’s new budget proposal represent an overall increase in appropriations of $920 million over the fiscal year 2014 budget. He is recommending an additional $198.3 million for Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids to account for enrollment growth and new expenses related to the Affordable Care Act.
Also included are proposed new allocations include $175 million in bonds for construction and maintenance of higher education facilities, $42.8 million in bond funding for construction, repairs and renovations to Juvenile Justice facilities, $39 million to give pay raises to high-performing state employees, $37.4 million for prison repairs and security upgrades, $35 million for deepening the harbor at the Port of Savannah and $7.4 million to hire new caseworkers for the Department of Family and Children Services.
The remaining six months of current budget would be supplemented with an additional $310 million, bringing total spending for the year ending June 30 to $20.2 billion.
Election Date Changes: House members voted Jan. 17 to approve legislation that will start the 2014 election year in Georgia at its earliest point ever. Under a Senate-amended version of HB 310, Georgia’s general primary will be held May 20 to align state elections with those for U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Those dates were mandated by a federal court order to give overseas voters enough time to cast their ballots in runoff elections. The 2014 primary runoff will be July 22, followed by the general election Nov. 4 and the general election runoff on Jan. 6, 2015.
Candidate qualifying for this year’s elections will begin March 3.
Farm Tax Relief: In an effort to support Georgia’s No. 1 business, agriculture, I have co-sponsored legislation that would, on approval by the voters in a referendum, exempt crop dusters from ad valorem taxes. If HB 679 is approved by the House and Senate, the referendum would be held in conjunction with the November 2014 general election. The legislation was referred to the House Ways & Means Committee for its consideration.
Criminal Justice Reform: Also during his State of the State address, Gov. Deal told lawmakers he is recommending a third phase of criminal justice reform to assist the transition of offenders into productive, law-abiding citizens upon their release from incarceration.
The goal is to reduce the criminal recidivism rate, meaning fewer crimes, fewer victims and fewer dollars spent on prison beds, according to the governor. The first two phases, the 2012 criminal justice reform and 2013 juvenile justice reform legislation, have resulted in a 90 percent decrease in jail backlogs, he said.
These reforms will allow nonviolent offenders to break their addictions, reclaim their lives and prevent taxpayers from spending $18,000 per inmate for each year the offender spends in prison, the governor said.