Both the House and the Senate agreed on a “small” or Amended Budget for 2021 with very few differences. Again, the big winner was education, who received $647 million from the state and $2.1 billion from the Feds, as well as a $1,000 one-time bonus for all teachers. Healthcare got the second biggest share, with an additional $103 million as well as $418 million in savings due to a change in the federal law as well as $1 billion from the Feds. Also, the governor pushed for a one-time bonus of $1,000 for every full-time state employee that makes under $80,000. That does NOT include legislators, as we are only part-time making about $17,000 a year. Overall, the 2021 is slightly smaller than 2020 because of COVID.
Now, we will work on the “big” budget for 2022. Thankfully, as revenues continue to outpace the nation, we should not be making any cuts.
We passed a very important bill in the House called the Pandemic Business Safety Act. It extends protections for businesses in Georgia who remained open during COVID against frivolous lawsuits. These brave businesses are the reason Georgia is in such good financial shape right now. The vote was very narrow, with nearly all the Democrats voting “no.”
My Teacher Tax Credit bill got unanimous votes in two committees, and should be on the floor of the House next week. Again, it would be a $3,000 for five years incentive for teachers who choose to work in a very rural or poorly performing school. The pilot program would cost $3 million a year.
I am also sponsoring (or co-sponsoring) three state compact bills; for speech pathologists, occupational therapists and counselors. These are requested by the military so that their dependent spouses can easily practice their trade when they move to a new duty station. Keep in mind, these compacts apply to everyone in these fields, not just military. Compacts also increase health care accessibility via telehealth, especially to rural areas. I got these bills through committee unanimously and am looking forward to more progress next week.
I’d like to end with some very good news. Two years ago, my committee passed legislation that encouraged local EMCs to get into the rural broadband business. This week, I was very happy to be asked by the governor to stand with him as he announced a huge public-private partnership with Central Georgia EMC, Southern Rivers, and Conexon to spend $210 million to build nearly 7,000 miles of fiber internet into very rural areas, including Newton and much of southern Morgan counties. And, as I have stated before, the governor is budgeting an additional $20 million for rural broadband and $40 million for rural innovation. Additionally, Georgia EMCs are going green ... big time. It’s hard to believe, but Georgia alone accounts for a third of all co-ops in the entire nation in solar power. This new massive expansion will install enough solar panels to reach Sweden, providing over 1182 megawatts of power and 1,000 new jobs. GA Power has also invested over $400 million in solar panels on our military bases.
Overall, Georgia Power has invested $2.65 billion, and Georgia as a whole over $3.2 billion, in solar power over the past few years, making us the fifth best solar state in America. Solar provides 3% of Georgia’s electricity needs, and almost 5,000 jobs over 2,225 installations. When the sun is shining, solar is cheaper than natural gas.
For the first time in nearly 100 years — mostly because of fracking and deregulation — America is finally energy self-sufficient. That means we DON’T have to rely on the Middle East or Russia to get our energy; actors that do NOT have our best interests at heart. This EMC project, as well as Georgia Power and countless others, is a great example of how businesses — not government mandates — provide solutions in a way that is both smart and green. America is way cleaner than China or India or Russia — or nearly every other country in the world — because of private enterprise ... not onerous regulations.
Dave Belton is a Republican from District 112, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives and representing Morgan and Newton counties.