The General Assembly does not meet during the MLK week. Instead, various committees work on the budget as the rest of us work on bills.
Georgia is now the fourth best state in the nation in producing jobs, nearly twice the national average. Because of these new jobs, Georgia is one of the fastest growing states: we just passed Michigan and North Carolina to become the eighth most populous in the US. We have the second lowest state tax burden per capita, the second best bond rating (AAA), the fourth largest port in the nation (Savannah), and the busiest airport in the world. We have the best Criminal Justice reform system, and have nearly the fewest (39th) state workers per capita. We’re making more movies than Hollywood, and we’re fourth in the nation in businesses involved in the fine arts (behind NY, CA, and TN).
The largest part of our budget (54 percent) is spent on Education as Georgia has 1.7M kids in 2,267 public schools. Of those children, 10 percent are special needs, 7 percent are English as a second language, 59 percent ride a school bus, and 60 percent are poor enough to receive reduced priced lunches. Georgia has 113,441 teachers, a number that is not keeping up with the influx of new children as 40 percent of our new teachers leave after a few years and very few students in college are studying teaching. Nearly all (96 percent) of Georgian kids go to public schools.
Overall, our education scores are about 35th in the nation. Our SAT scores are much lower (about 48th) because HOPE scholarship encourages all Georgian seniors to take the SAT, thus reducing our overall score. In most states, only the brightest students take the test and in the Midwest only the top 5 percent of students take the SAT (they take the ACT instead). On the positive side, GA ranks 13th best in AP scores, first in the nation in Career Pathways, and does very well in teaching finances. Our graduation rate is up 6 percent to 79 percent. (Newton County’s overall graduation rate was 85 percent and Eastside’s was an amazing 91 percent.)
Happily, Education is becoming more holistic in Georgia as we aren’t focusing on tests as much and are creating many new ways to graduate (including dual enrollment and computer science as a foreign language). On the national level, the much more flexible “Every Student Succeeds Act” is replacing the unpopular “No Child Left Behind” and a new Georgia law reduces the number of tests and their importance significantly. Common Core is history and we’re acknowledging that “one size fits all” is a poor way to treat our teachers - or our children. Half of our Georgia schools are STEM certified and 94 percent of our kids graduate with a career pathway.
The next big item in the state budget is Healthcare at 13 percent. It’s hard to know what will happen with this due to the probable demise of Obamacare. Transportation is next at 7 percent and it is clear we are spending a lot of money to improve our aging roads. The next major items are Corrections at 5 percent, Behavioral Health at 4 percent, HOPE at 3 percent, Human Services at 3 percent, Pre-K at 2 percent, and Juvenile Justice at 1 percent.
Things are booming in Newton County, where tourism increased by 11 percent, supporting 1,140 jobs with a payroll of $23 million and bringing in $125 million from visitors. The Chamber celebrated 31 ribbon cuttings and has projects approved for an additional 4,000 jobs worth $400 million a year. Closer partnerships with the Chamber and Newton County Schools are helping our efforts with STEM education which is now being taught as early as elementary school. And the new Three Rings Studio will solidify Covington’s status as the Hollywood of the South.
I hope you will continue to pray for me as I serve you in the People’s House of Georgia.
Belton is a Republican from District 112, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives.