Governor Nathan Deal gave his annual State of the State speech this week, and in general, Georgians can be proud that things are much better here compared to the rest of the nation.
First, we are still — for three years in a row — the best state to do business in. Second, our AAA Bond Rating is the very best in the nation. (As you recall, the U.S. infamously lost its AAA Bond Rating a few years ago.) We are the fourth fastest growing state and are the fourth best in producing new jobs. We’ve halved our unemployment numbers, and by cutting taxes we’ve grown 22,000 construction jobs, doubling the U.S. to become the third best in the nation. We’re deepening the Port in Savannah and are making more movies than Hollywood. We’re the very lowest (best) state in per capita taxes and have the best criminal justice reform in the nation. We have very few state workers (39th in the nation) and near the bottom in Medicaid expenditures (47th).
On the other hand, our wages are persistently low, ranking only 40th in the U.S. Our poverty ranking is fifth worst, and our schools rank below 35th place (or worst) in most categories. Medicaid costs have grown 16 percent to $3.1 billion a year, costing every Georgia family $1,258 state dollars and another $3,400 federal dollars each year. Even though we have added over $1 billion to education in two years — and will add another $417 million this year — our per-student spending is still only 35th in the nation. On the bright side, our workforce development has greatly improved with Move On When Ready and Dual Enrollment programs, and we’re modernizing our Tech Colleges and Career Academies. Overall, our graduation rate has climbed 11 points to 79 percent (Newton was 82 percent), and we are now accepting computer courses in lieu of foreign languages.
The governor announced a 3 percent pay increase to all teachers and state employees. He quoted British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s assessment that, “the scope, speed, and scale of change demands that we educate for a future vastly different from our past” and that we should “not be held hostage to a status quo” that is a “disservice to our students.” Still, he decided to delay his goal to restructure education spending until 2017, in part because of a Department of Education (DOE) survey in which teachers voiced their loud condemnation of too much standardized testing. Thus, we are NOT pursuing merit pay as the legislature pushed back hard against this. I believe teachers should take this as proof that the General Assembly is listening, as we’re moving towards less testing and more empowerment of the teacher in the classroom. We’ve also promised to leave education curriculum decisions to the teacher, and to focus on the child instead.
I believe the big fights this year will be about at least four different Religious Freedom bills. The goal is to protect First Amendment rights without being discriminatory. I believe at least one of these bills will pass. The producing of Cannabis Oil (for medical reasons) will again be hotly contested as the Governor and Law Enforcement are concerned about certain provisions that would provide relief to these Georgians in chronic pain. Casino Gambling will also be contentious as rural legislators don’t want it but many city folks do. And there are a few anti-2nd Amendment bills that have zero chance of passing either chamber.
As always, I am eager to hear how you feel about these topics. I hope you’ll continue to pray for me, and contact me with your constructive comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-372-4114.
Dave Belton is in his second year as the District 112 Georgia Representative. The Morgan and Newton County representative is serving in his first term in Georgia’s House. He is a resident of Morgan County.