The Georgia General Assembly began the second year, our first day, of the 2015-16 biennial session on Monday, January 11, 2016. This is the second year of my freshman term, and more importantly - this is an election year. The reason I mention this being an election year is because it changes the political dynamics of how the session will proceed.
As I commented early in the 2015 session, it is important to manage the 40-day session to ensure that the truly important, constitutional mandates for the Georgia General Assembly are accomplished, specifically developing and funding a balanced budget. Constitutionally, the only item the General Assembly must accomplish each session is the state’s balanced budget.
Over the course of the 2016 session, I will give you my insights, comments and thoughts on how the session is progressing and comments on various bills, including those I sponsored or support and those I do not, as they make their way through the legislative process.
The first days of the official start of each session is procedural and somewhat ceremonial as things get cranked up. In the interest of full disclosure, the House Communications office provides legislators, who wish to receive it, a template press release of the week’s activities which I will reply upon as the overall basis for my weekly email blast. Follows is the bulk of the first week’s press release.
During an eventful first week of the 2016 session, the House convened every day to take up business, committees began meeting to discuss legislation, and Governor Deal delivered his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate. My colleagues and I in the House even received a surprise visit from Georgia’s own Miss America, Betty Cantrell. I hope you saw my Facebook post of my picture with Ms. Cantrell. She is a bright, intelligent and beautiful representative of Georgia. The former Miss Georgia was honored on the House floor and helped us kick off the first day of the legislative session by singing a beautiful rendition of “Georgia on my Mind.”
This week marked Gov. Deal’s sixth State of the State address, which he gave before a joint session of the House and Senate, members of the judiciary, staff, members of the media and special guests. In his annual address, Gov. Deal outlined Georgia’s successes and opportunities for improvement and growth in the months ahead.
Gov. Deal began his address by highlighting the significant economic progress the state has made since the Great Recession of 2008. Currently, Georgia’s Rainy Day Fund, or reserves, have increased to more than $1.43 billion and continue to grow each year. Gov. Deal noted those same reserves had dropped by $2.3 billion from 2007 to 2011 and were almost completely depleted during that time. Gov. Deal also emphasized that we are currently experiencing the state’s lowest post-recession unemployment rate of 5.6 percent. In addition, Georgia currently has the third lowest construction unemployment rate in the nation of 4 percent, due to more than 22,000 new manufacturing jobs, which have generated over $900 million in wages to the state. These positive figures were great news and provided an encouraging outlook.
As our state has seen tremendous growth in manufacturing and construction, Gov. Deal announced his continued plan to strengthen Georgia’s workforce and address the jobs skills gap that many employers encounter. Gov. Deal targeted 11 areas under the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grants where students receive full tuition coverage from HOPE for training in 140 different programs and technical institutions. As part of his promise to bridge the skills gap, Gov. Deal called on the General Assembly and higher education leaders to add another field to this important list and proposed an addition of $17.1 million of the FY2017 budget to continue the work already in place through this program.
Comprising more than half of the state’s proposed annual budget, education is still the top priority for Gov. Deal and the State of Georgia. The governor’s FY2017 budget proposal calls for a 3 percent pay raise for teachers to come from an additional $300 million in appropriation for K-12 education to the local school boards. The money for the 3% increase will be sent to the local school districts who will then be expected to pay that money to the teachers as pay increases. Gov. Deal noted that in the past three years, 94 percent of school systems used this additional funding to reduce or entirely eliminate furlough days, and with this funding, teacher furlough days should be a thing of the past.
In addition to his education budget proposal, Gov. Deal also addressed some of the suggestions from his Education Reform Commission, which was tasked with examining our entire education system and reporting back to the governor and the General Assembly with its recommendations for reform. One recommendation that came out of the Commission is a student based funding formula to replace the Quality Based Education (QBE) formula, which has been in place for more than 30 years. The new funding formula would assess funds based on characteristics of the individual student, as opposed to “rigid, impersonal criteria,” and will even incorporate updated explanations for poverty. The governor also spoke of a teacher compensation model to reward teacher effectiveness, as well as a call to State Department of Education and local school systems to evaluate their testing requirements and eliminate unnecessary tests. To make the best decision for our students, the General Assembly will spend careful time and consideration reviewing the information and recommendations of the Commission.
Also in his State of the State address, the governor echoed an announcement made the previous day in which members of the General Assembly joined Governor Nathan Deal and representatives from Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) for a press conference to roll out a comprehensive plan for sustainable transportation infrastructure improvements in Georgia. The new infrastructure maintenance plan will be based on funding from the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (HB-170), one of the Governor and General Assembly leadership’s top priorities in 2015. You will recall that HB-170 raised taxes to Georgia citizens for 2016 by approximately $1.0 billion dollars, arguably the largest tax increase in Georgia’s history. Although I was unable to attend the transportation plan roll-out, I understand GDOT’s comprehensive plan included two project lists. The first is for 18 months and valued at $2.2 billion. According to Gov. Deal, this plan will use roughly 60 percent of the user fees collected from the passage of HB-170 last year for repair and maintenance of existing roads, with the remaining 40 percent going towards the construction of new roadways and bridges. The second list is a ten year list, valued at more $10 billion. This proposal is vital to maintaining safe access to our roads and bridges throughout the state and will also serve as a way to continue to promote economic development in Georgia.
Finally, after announcing his goals in the State of the State address this week, Gov. Deal officially released his $23.7 billion state budget proposal to the General Assembly for the upcoming fiscal year. Just as the governor listed education as his top priority in his address, he also made education a top priority in his proposal of the state’s budget, with $300 million additional funds intended for teacher salary increases, and $26.2 million for Pre-K teacher pay raises. The governor’s budget proposal also includes $825 million in new state general and motor fuel funds for the state’s transportation network, and funding for public safety, health care, and economic development.
These are just a few highlights from Gov. Deal’s budget proposals. The General Assembly will use the governor’s recommendations as a starting point when we review these recommendations in our Joint House and Senate Budget Hearings and Joint Appropriations subcommittee hearings. I look forward to diving deeper into the details of the governor’s budget plans to ensure that we are spending your tax dollars in the most efficient way possible.
In next week’s newsletter, I will list and discuss bills that I am sponsoring and bills that I have signed on as a sponsor. There are several bills that are significant and important to the citizens of Georgia.
Now that session is underway, I want you to know that I will be working hard every day we are in session in Atlanta. I hope you will take the opportunity to review updates like this to keep you informed about legislative matters. You can also stay in touch by visiting our website at www.house.ga.gov to watch a live stream of the House in action, as well as archived committee meetings, and review legislation that we are considering. I welcome you to reach out to me and share your thoughts and opinions as we move throughout the legislative session this year. I can be reached via email at [email protected], or by phone at 404-656-0126.
I would also like to encourage you to share this legislative update with your friends, family and neighbors, and to sign up for this weekly email update at www.VoteJeffJones.com.
Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.