I periodically like to update you on where we are as a state, as well as tell you where I think we’re headed this legislative Session.
Like Jesus in the desert, the legislature meets for 40 days every year. Designed on the “citizen legislators” concept of our Founding Fathers, all of Georgia’s state legislators have “real jobs” outside of state government. Not all states are like this; many have full-time legislators with full-time salaries.
For the fourth year in a row, Georgia was named the “Best State in the Nation to Do Business” and Atlanta was just ranked the “Best City in the Nation to Start a Business.” Georgia’s recently added 600,000 jobs, nearly doubling the nation in job growth. We’ve grown so much that we’ve moved from 10th to the eigth largest population in the US, meaning we’ll gain one or two Congressional seats in 2020. Our AAA Bond Rating (for 20 years in a row) is second best in the nation, and we were one of only five states to keep a AAA status during the Great Recession.
Your state government is very small. In fact, per capita spending is below 2008 levels. We’re second lowest in the nation in per capita spending, third lowest in state debt and second lowest in collections per capita. Florida’s and Texas’ budget are four times larger than Georgia’s with only twice as many people.
Agriculture is still our biggest industry at $75 billion a year impact. Georgia is No. 1 in the nation in blueberries, poultry, peanuts, rye, and onions; No. 2 in cotton, cucumbers, and watermelon; and No. 3 in bell peppers, peaches, and corn. Even though farmers only account for 1 percent of our population, their crops support one in every seven jobs. Tourism in Georgia grew 3 percent this year to reach $60 billon a year, and Manufacturing rose 12 percent to $55 billion. The military is next at $25 billion a year, which is one of the reasons I’m working so hard to protect our bases. But the quickest growing sector is our $10 billion Film Industry. It’s hard to believe, but Georgia is now the No. 1 location in the world to make movies. In fact, 17 of the last 20 top grossing films were made here. As the “Hollywood of the South,” Covington and her new Three Rings Studios are especially well-placed to prosper and thrive.
Georgia is spending more money on roads than any other state. This is vital as Atlanta’s biggest strength is its role as a hub of transportation. Savannah is the fourth busiest port in the U.S., Atlanta is the busiest airport in the world, and the Atlanta metro has the eighth largest economy in the U.S.
Education is thriving as well. Our graduation skyrocketed in the past eight years, moving up 17 points (26 percent) to a whopping 81 percent. Newton County is doing even better, sporting an 83 percent graduation rate. (Newton and Alcovy are both at 82 percent while Eastside is 90 percent.) For the first time in decades, Georgia beats the nation in both the SAT and the ACT, and we’re 13th best in college Advanced Placement tests. These are huge gains from the days we were ranked 49th on the SAT.
This session will mostly be about rural development. While Atlanta is the fifth best job producing city in the U.S., and has the third best median income increase, Georgia’s poverty rate is fifth worst in the nation (worse than every Southern state) and our number of economically distressed counties (mostly Rural) is fourth worst. While Atlanta’s population doubled since 1984 and grew seven-fold in the past 80 years because of its ample jobs, low cost of living, and appeal to millennials, most counties in Georgia are actually smaller than they were during World War II. To address these issues, a number of bills will be introduced to combine Broadband, health care, and education solutions for Rural Georgia.
There’s also a great deal of discussion about improving metro transit (not necessarily MARTA), especially to bridge “the last mile” that makes our transit impractical to use. The House and the governor want an adoption bill passed that will remove onerous red tape to help such children find good homes. The issue of growing medical cannabis will be also addressed, as well as a no-hands cellphone bill (deaths from distracted driving have climbed sharply in the past few years). As for myself, I will be working on several military bills, as well as a measure to allow small municipalities (like Mansfield and Newborn) to shorten prohibitively expensive early-voting periods.
I rarely talk about the national scene, but feel I must when so much inaccurate information is going around. Despite what the main-steam media says, this Congress has drafted and this White House has signed more legislation than any president - ever - in a first-year administration. Other NATO nations are finally paying their fair share of their military obligations, the once-indominable ISIS “caliphate” has been defeated, and the U.S. has finally taken its rightful lead in foreign affairs, producing a more prosperous planet via peace through strength. Several important veterans acts – authored by Georgia’s own Sen. Johnny Isakson – were passed, and a robust defense bill was just signed, improving U.S. military spending from an 80-year low. The president has also cut more regulations than any president since Abraham Lincoln, resulting in a robust U.S. economy not seen in decades. The nation has added 2.2 millon jobs this year and consumer confidence is at a 17-year high. We’ve also had 3 percent GDP growth two quarters in a row, beating all expectations and proving that anemic growth of the past decade is not the “new normal.” The stock market has added $6 trillion in wealth and Congress just passed the largest tax cut since Ronald Reagan. This tax cut – that will benefit the average family by at least $2,000 a year – also eliminates the Obamacare individual mandate that forces people to buy a product they don’t want. It also – finally – allows us to drill for oil in the tiny, frozen, wasteland of arctic ANWR. And despite all the dangerously disingenuous rhetoric you hear, the tax cut will benefit the middle class. In fact, it will lower the individual taxes of 80 percent of the nation.
Georgians are blessed to be living in the very best state in the very best nation the world has ever known. I hope you will pray for me as I begin another session serving the good people of Morgan and Newton counties.
Belton is a Republican from District 112, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives.