Majority of House-approved budget supplement goes to schools
A majority of the additions to the state budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2014, as approved Jan. 24 by the House of Representatives, will go toward K-12 education funding to account for increased enrollment and to enhance Internet connectivity in Georgia’s public schools. Part of the $183 million in new education appropriations will also be added to the dual-enrollment Accel Program awards and the virtual state charter schools’ funding formula and program development.
The amended budget, if approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, would also add $51.5 million for OneGeorgia and Regional Economic Business Assistance grants in local communities, $47.6 million for additional Medicaid reimbursements and $27 million for transportation projects.
I am also pleased that the House-approved supplemental budget includes an addition of $890,421 for the Ware County Board of Education. Ware County’s schools received their tax digest later than usual due to a large number of property tax appeals. Because of the delay in finalizing the digest, Ware County was not able to submit its new millage rate to the Department of Revenue on time, which ultimately had a negative impact on the Ware County Schools’ Equalization earnings.
The total increase of $313.9 million would bring the total budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, to $20.2 billion – an increase of only 1.5 percent, while state revenues have seen a steady 5 percent increase. The state is directing taxpayer dollars toward the most important areas of education, jobs, infrastructure and public safety.
The supplemental budget legislation (HB 743) goes to the Senate for its consideration. Now only nine legislative days into the session, the House Appropriations Committee will turn its full attention to the proposed $20.8 billion annual state budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1.
In other news last week, a proposed compromise to pass legislation that would allow the presidents of individual colleges and universities to decide whether weapons could be legally carried on campus has been declared unconstitutional by the Office of Legislative Counsel. The opinion cited a potential “improper delegation of legislative authority,” which would violate the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.
House sponsors of the firearms expansion legislation said they will now move forward with a proposal that does not include the “campus carry” provision. Legislation that would have allowed guns on campuses was approved by a majority of House members in 2013 but failed to win final approval when negotiations with the Senate on the issue reached a stalemate.
Meanwhile, I have co-sponsored legislation that would provide certain exemptions to the state law prohibiting the discharge of a firearm within 50 yards of a public highway. HB 773 would make exceptions for when the discharge occurs at an indoor or outdoor sport shooting range; facilities used for firearm or hunting safety courses sponsored by a unit of government, nonprofit corporation or commercial enterprise; business locations of licensed firearms dealers; or by any person engaged in legal hunting.
The bill was referred to the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee for its consideration.
I am also working with other House leaders to draft legislation that would help Georgia’s struggling rural hospitals and will report on that when the legislation is introduced.
The concerns of educators and other state employees about the new structure of the State Health Benefits Plan are being heard. At the request of Gov. Nathan Deal, the Board of Community Health has called a special meeting to discuss possible changes. The plan provides health insurance coverage for more than 600,000 educators, state employees and their dependents.
Administrative control of the health plan was shifted Jan. 1 from two carriers to one, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, and plan members have complained about changes to a high-deductible health reimbursement account and limitations on the network of participating physicians and hospitals.
The new contract will remain in effect through the end of 2014, but the Deal administration has said it will propose changes to Blue Cross Blue Shield that would address some of the concerns expressed by plan members.
The House Industry & Labor Committee is considering legislation that would prevent employees of private companies that provide third-party educational institution services from receiving unemployment insurance benefits during breaks in the school year. HB 714 is aimed at strengthening Georgia’ unemployment insurance system following a ruling by the federal government last year that Georgia law did not cover unemployment insurance for private companies as it relates to educational institution workers.
Public schools’ administrators, teachers and employees would not be affected by the legislation. It would only apply to the third-party vendors that some school systems in Georgia choose to supply student transportation, school meals and other services. Some of these private companies actually encourage and train their educational institution employees to file for unemployment benefits during breaks in the school calendar, at a cost to the taxpayers estimated at $8 million annually.
Private companies’ educational institution employees would remain eligible for unemployment insurance benefits if they are not given reasonable assurance their position will be available to them at the end of the temporary break or if the private company does not rehire them at the end of the break. HB 714 was approved by the subcommittee handling the legislation and now awaits a vote by the full committee.
Another legislative proposal moving through the committee process set a limit on the future commercial development of Jekyll Island has been favorably reported by the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee. HB 715 would permanently cap the land area that could be developed on Jekyll Island at 20 acres and would provide protections for the rest of the island. This measure and similar legislation moving through the Senate have the support of environmental groups and the Jekyll Island Authority, which oversees the development of tourist and retail facilities on the island. HB 715 will now be considered by the full House.