On Tuesday, January 17, the General Assembly began one of the most important weeks of the 2017 legislative session as the House and Senate Appropriations committees held a series of joint budget hearings. During this week, the joint House and Senate Appropriations committees and subcommittees met and started the process of reviewing Governor Nathan Deal’s budget recommendations for the amended current and upcoming fiscal years in order to turn those recommendations into actual legislation that will ultimately guide our state’s spending.
Each legislative session, as required by our state constitution, we must pass a balanced state budget. After reviewing Gov. Deal’s budget proposals presented this week, members of the General Assembly will begin drafting two budget bills: the Amended Fiscal Year 2017 (AFY 2017) budget and the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY 2018) budget. The AFY 2017 budget is an amended budget for the current fiscal year, ending June 30, and uses a more accurate estimate of state revenue to account for any differences between the projected estimate and actual revenue obtained. The FY 2018 budget is a full budget for fiscal year 2018 that uses a projected state revenue estimate to guide state spending beginning on July 1.
Gov. Deal kicked-off our budget hearings on Tuesday morning by presenting his budget recommendations, which he released to the General Assembly last week, in greater detail before the joint House and Senate Appropriations Committee members. In addition to the governor’s comprehensive proposal, General Assembly members heard testimonies from various state agency heads, each of whom explained their budgetary needs and answered questions from House and Senate members. The final versions of the budgets will specify how much state funding these agencies will receive, so it is important that we hear from them as we go through this process.
Georgia has benefited from continuous economic success in recent years, seeing growth in our labor markets, wages and revenues, and that revenue growth is only projected to increase in the upcoming year. As a result of our bolstering economy and consistent uptick state revenues, Gov. Deal’s AFY 2017 budget includes approximately $606 million in “new” revenue, and his FY 2018 budget recommends a state appropriation of $25 billion in total funding for the full fiscal year 2018 budget. The governor pointed out to my colleagues and I that his budget proposals make use of these funds in an effort to continue upon Georgia’s already established successes, as well as create new opportunities for further growth and prosperity.
One new opportunity for economic growth that the governor included as a top priority in his amended fiscal year 2017 budget proposal is funding for the development of the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in Augusta. The governor’s budget proposal appropriated $50 million to be used for this state-owned facility, which will serve to enhance American cyber-security in both the public and private arenas and promote innovation in cyber-security technology to defend our state against hackers and other cyber-security threats. The Cyber Innovation and Training Center will have a tremendous benefit on our entire state by attracting young people to Georgia who have interests in cyber-security, entrepreneurs looking for startup opportunities and businesses in the cyber-technology sphere.
In the amended fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, Gov. Deal prioritized and included a targeted salary increase for our state law enforcement officers. This includes a recommended appropriation of $27.3 million to provide for a 20 percent salary increase for law enforcement officers, as well as additional increases for public safety trainers and criminal investigators. And in an effort to further support our law enforcement and public safety officers, the governor also proposed additional funding in the amended budget for vehicles and equipment for officers, including pursuit, investigative and bomb response vehicles and forestry equipment to aid during wild fires. This salary increase and funding for resources is designed to reduce turnover and improve recruitment in these areas – areas where we need to have skilled employees who are adequately equipped with the proper resources to effectively do their jobs.
The safety of all Georgians is vital, and Gov. Deal has made it his mission to recognize public safety issues and implement meaningful improvements to Georgia’s criminal justice system since he took office. His nationally lauded criminal justice reforms help give offenders a second chance, save our taxpayers money and promote offender rehabilitation. While much work has been done in the area of criminal justice reform, the governor suggested that there is still more work to do in this area and more we can improve upon. As such, the governor allocated $4.2 million in his FY 2018 budget to expand the state’s Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants and accountability courts, both of which are aimed at providing community-based alternatives to rehabilitate offenders as a proven alternative to sentencing. Gov. Deal also included an additional $3.7 million in the proposed FY 2018 budget to continue educational and vocational assistance programs for inmates to prepare them with the skills they will need to be successful upon their release. Georgia has a proven track record of implementing effective criminal justice reform initiatives, and building upon the state’s success in this area will ultimately benefit all of Georgia’s citizens.
To further ensure that each and every Georgian maintains a healthy and safe quality of life, including our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, Gov. Deal included funding for several new positions for Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) caseworkers in his fiscal year 2018 budget. While some could interpret the need for more DFCS caseworkers as a negative, this increase actually indicates that our programs and initiatives over the last several years have worked to benefit of Georgia’s children. We have stressed the importance of reporting potential cases of child abuse or endangerment, and because of this aggressive approach, call volume and the number of reported cases has increased, and therefore, there is a need for additional caseworkers to investigate these reports. Further, by adding additional caseworkers, DFCS will be able to reduce the average caseload per worker and allow caseworkers to better serve our state’s children. The governor’s FY 2018 budget proposal includes $25.9 million to recruit and retain the best and most qualified caseworkers, as well as salary increases for existing staff to promote employee retention and reduce turnover.
Just as we have seen our statewide population grow in recent years, we, too, have seen an increase in the number of children in out-of-home care, resulting in a 62 percent rise in costs to the state since 2013. The governor allocated $28.6 million in his amended 2017 budget and $30.9 million in the FY 2018 budget proposal to reflect this increase. And to address the rising number of children in out-of-home care in the future, the governor’s FY 2018 budget also includes a $3.9 million increase in per diem reimbursements for DFCS foster parents and $2.9 million for additional service support to recruit and retain those foster families and encourage families to stay with the system. As Georgians, we are responsible for the welfare of all our children, and these budget provisions will ensure we take care of our youngest, most vulnerable citizens. .
Finally, much like in years past, Gov. Deal prioritized funding for improvements of the educational skill level of Georgia’s children – particularly in the areas of reading and writing among our youngest learners. In order to better equip our veteran educators and our student teachers-in-training with the skills and techniques needed to teach reading and literacy, the governor appropriated a portion of his proposed AFY 2017 and FY 2018 budgets to fund the development of the Georgia Center for Early Language and Literacy. This facility, which will be located at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, will allow specialized and skilled instructors to provide training to prepare our teachers to confront literacy obstacles in the classroom. Not every educator has been trained with the skills to teach literacy, and most educators agree that more resources are needed to assist teachers in this area. Students learn in a variety of ways, and we need to ensure that Georgia’s colleges of education are preparing our future teachers to meet a wide range of educational needs. I am certain that this initiative will significantly improve the skill level of our students and be a great asset to our teachers.
In addition to the funds appropriated to the literacy center’s construction, Gov. Deal’s budget proposal also includes a 2 percent merit pay increase for teachers, which is built into the pay schedule for FY 2018. The additional $160 million for this purpose, combined with other funding, would bring the new total of additional funding for K-12 education over the past four fiscal years to more than $2.017 billion. Teachers today are preparing our state’s leaders of tomorrow, and it is crucial that we invest in those who devote their careers to our students.
Now that this week’s joint appropriations committee meetings have concluded, the House Appropriations subcommittees will delve even further into the governor’s budget proposals and eventually pass portions of the budget in their respective subcommittees. Those portions of the budget will then go before the full House Appropriations Committee, which will review and pass balanced budgets for AFY 2017 and FY 2018.
After the House Appropriations Committee passes the budget, it will then go to the Rules Committee where it will be placed on the House calendar. The budget then goes to the House floor, where every member of the House will have the opportunity to voice their opinions before voting.
Once the budget passes the House, it will go to the State Senate and repeat this same committee process before making it to the Senate floor for a vote. By this point, the budget will likely differ from the original version as passed by the House. When this happens, the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor will both appoint a conference committee to resolve discrepancies between the House and Senate versions of the state budget.
When the conference committee reaches an agreement, their version of the budget goes back to the House and Senate for a final floor vote. Both chambers must vote on the conference committee’s version of the budget to guarantee that all contents are fully agreed upon by both chambers. Finally, if approved by both House and Senate, the legislation is sent to the governor’s office where he can sign or veto. Once signed by Gov. Deal, the budget becomes law. All legislation must go through this process before becoming law.