We returned to the Gold Dome on Monday, January 25 for the third week the 2016 legislative session. This week brought more exciting and important work for my colleagues and I in the House. Several House committees and subcommittees met throughout the week to take up legislation, and the full body of the House unanimously passed our first two pieces of legislation of the session. Chief Justice Hugh Thompson also delivered the annual State of the Judiciary Address this week to a joint session of the House and Senate.
Following last week’s budget hearings, the House successfully passed the amended fiscal year (AFY 2016) budget, or the mid-year adjustment of state spending through June 30, 2016. The amended budget, HB-750, is very similar to Gov. Deal’s recommendations, consisting of $1.1 billion, or 5.3 percent, in “new” funds, bringing the total appropriation for AFY 2016 to $22.9 billion with education and transportation funds account for approximately 85 percent of the new appropriations. As a result of the diligent work of the members of the House Appropriations Committee and the staff in the House Budget and Research Office, HB-750 passed the House on Thursday, January 28, 2016 by a vote of 176-0.
A major part of the AFY 2016 budget is the appropriation of $758 million in new state general and motor fuel funds for transportation. These new transportation funds are a result of the general and motor fuel proceeds from House Bill 170, the Transportation Funding Act, passed during the 2015 legislative session. Of those funds, $519 million are budgeted for capital construction and maintenance projects; $200 million for routine maintenance; and $336.1 million in Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants (LMIG). Georgians are encouraged to track the progress of transportation projects and view the state’s 10-year major mobility plan by visiting www.GAroads.org. With this increased funding, we will not only improve the infrastructure for our booming economic hubs, but also ensure the safety of our citizens on our roads and bridges.
While there is no question that investments in our transportation infrastructure were long overdue, investments in our education system are always essential components of any budget. The AFY 2016 budget allocates $204 million to Georgia’s K-12 system, including a $109.9 million for midterm enrollment growth. This also includes $14.9 million through the OneGeorgia Authority to continue to provide grants to local school systems for wireless broadband connectivity to encourage high-tech classrooms. Funding for higher education was also included in HB-750, with an additional $30 million in lottery funds going towards the HOPE/Zell Miller Scholarships and an additional $525,808 in new funds for the North Georgia Military Scholarship Grant. The AFY 2016 budget also allocates an additional $20.2 million for the Move on When Ready program, allowing eligible Georgia students to take advantage of dual enrollment and progress at their own pace. Investments in education can never be too great, and I am proud of the work we have done, and are continuing to do, for Georgia’s students.
The AFY 2016 budget also provides additional funding in some other areas, most notably Georgia’s health services. The budget appropriates $59 million for growth in the Medicaid and Peachcare programs. These funds will cover high-cost prescriptions, increased cost of the Aged, Blind, and Disabled program, and overall program growth. The budget also calls for an additional $17.1 million towards Medicare payments. While these funds are certainly needed, perhaps some of the most meaningful allocations are within the Community Care Services Program, which maintains community-based services for the elderly. The AFY 2016 budget provides $2.3 million towards office expansion or relocation of four county offices that see the greatest influx of participants in the Community Care Services Program. I was happy to vote for this funding to give additional care to those who need it.
In addition to passing the AFY 2016 budget, we also passed another important piece of legislation that will provide Georgia’s tax preparers and business community with more certainty when filing their tax returns. House Bill 742 is an annual Internal Revenue Code (IRC) update and makes changes to Georgia’s tax code to comply with the recently updated federal tax code. HB 742 updates Georgia’s tax code by synchronizing tax return filing dates to allow most businesses in Georgia to file state and federal returns simultaneously. HB 742 would also make permanent the $500,000 deduction in section 179 and the Research Tax Credit. By streamlining this process and bringing Georgia’s policy in line with federal legislation, we are easing the tax process for individuals and business owners statewide.
In addition to passing these bills, the House and Senate convened for a joint session in the House Chamber with the Georgia Supreme Court, the Georgia Court of Appeals and other guests for the annual State of the Judiciary Address from Chief Justice Hugh Thompson on Wednesday. Chief Justice Thompson was appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia in 1994 and was elected by his peers to a four-year term as chief justice in 2013. Lt. Governor Casey Cagle welcomed the Chief Justice to the rostrum where he updated us on the current state of Georgia’s judicial system.
In his address, Chief Justice Thompson called Georgia the “gateway to the South” and to this country. Due in large part to our booming economic hub, Chief Justice Thompson noted that Georgia’s population has almost doubled since the implementation of our new state constitution in 1983. However, the number of judges in Georgia has only grown by 16 percent since then, and therefore, he applauded the legislature for the passage of House Bill 279 during the 2015 legislative session, which added three judges to the Court of Appeals in Georgia. These additional judges have allowed the Court of Appeals to hear five times the number of cases each year, while also allowing the Supreme Court of Georgia to focus on the more complex cases, such as constitutional challenges and federal court questions on Georgia law.
Maintaining his theme on 21st century Georgia courts, Chief Justice Thompson transitioned to new technology available within the court system. Overseeing these new projects is the newly commissioned Judicial Council Standing Committee on Technology, which was established by Supreme Court order to lead the judicial branch on all technology initiatives. One of the committee’s top priorities is to transition all of Georgia’s court systems from paper documents to electronic filings. The Supreme Court of Georgia and Court of Appeals have both transitioned to e-filing systems, with the ultimate goal of developing a statewide filing and retrieving portal to ensure efficiency throughout the court system. By providing this advanced technology, judges will have increased access to critical information, they need to keep our state safe.
Much like new technologies in the judicial system, new approaches to criminal justice are changing the way Georgian’s approach crime and punishment. Chief Justice Thompson commended Governor Deal for his commitment to criminal-justice justice reform, noting that our state’s previously overpopulated prisons are at their lowest point in 10 years, and the state’s recidivism rate is the lowest in 30 years. These improvements are attributed, in part, to the expansion of our state’s now 131 accountability courts. An accountability court is criminal-justice ffective criminal justice alternative for non-violent offenders, such as a drug and mental health treatment court, where offenders are held accountable through court-supervised treatment programs. The chief justice credited accountability courts with reducing crime by 45 percent, and with saving the state more than $51 million in prison costs in 2015. I am proud of the work our judicial branch has done to give our citizens a second chance, reduce crime and keep more Georgians safe.
Finally, while we accomplished some very important work on legislation this week, we also took time to recognize some of our state’s most admirable citizens. On Monday, January 25, the House celebrated Georgia National Guard Day in honor of our brave Georgians in uniform. Members of the Georgia National Guard were recognized on the House floor and presented with House Resolution 1007. It was an honor to have Adjutant General Joe Jarrard and members of the Georgia National Guard with us in the House, where we were also privileged to witness a new member of the Georgia National Guard be sworn into the Army National Guard by our very own colleague and WWII veteran, Representative John Yates (R-Griffin). These soldiers embody the true meaning of patriotism, and I cannot thank them enough for their service to our state and to our country.
As the 2016 legislative session moves into its fourth week, committees will be meeting more frequently to discuss many more pieces of legislation. I am currently serving on the Interstate Cooperation, Motor Vehicles, and Natural Resources and Environment, and I would love to hear your input on any bills that come before these committees or before the House for a vote. Your comments help guide my decisions on Capitol Hill, and I encourage you to call my office at the State Capitol in Atlanta at 404-656-0126 or reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.
As always, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve as your state representative.
Representative Jeff Jones