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Governor addresses education, jobs in State of the State address

POSTED: January 16, 2014 12:31 a.m.

Education was the central focus of Gov. Nathan Deal’s State of the State address Wednesday, with the state leader arguing it is vital to two other issues facing the state: prison reform and jobs.

“I just thought that the governor nailed it, frankly,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “I thought he knocked the ball out of the park.”

The governor struck an optimistic tone, proclaiming the “state of the state is excellent, and it is a great day in Georgia.”

In his proposed budget is a $547 million increase in education spending, totaling nearly $8 billion. Out of that, $314 million would be for local schools to decide how to use.

“In the budget I am sending you for Fiscal Year 2015, almost 82 percent of new revenue receipts are dedicated to education with 68 percent of those new revenues going to K-12 alone,” he said.

That’s exactly what Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield wanted to hear.

“It’s a good day for Georgia education,” Schofield said, adding an increase in state spending could help local boards of education reinstate calendar days.

The 2014-15 Hall County school calendar has 176 days scheduled for students, and 186 for teachers. The recommended numbers are 180 and 190 days, respectively.

“We are immediately going to pull our calendar back out in the Hall County School District with this kind of an increase and see if there’s any way we can revise and get ourselves back to a 190-day contract for teachers and 180 student days,” Schofield said. “(I’m) not sure we’re going to be able to do that, but the news I heard today was dramatic enough we’re going to at least take a hard look at it.”

Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, whose district includes part of East Hall, said he hadn’t heard beforehand how Deal planned to spend extra state revenues, but he thinks using them to help public education is the way to go.

“The school systems have so many different needs,” Wilkinson said. “He’s going to send a lot of that money back to the systems and give them the flexibility to spend the money where their particular system needs it. I think that was an excellent approach today.”

Deal called it the single largest increase in K-12 funding in seven years.

“That’s good news,” said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. “The good news is that revenues are up, and that’s a breath of fresh air from the last four years. We’ve had to deal with so many cuts, so I thought it was very positive.”

The governor also addressed technical education, urging lawmakers to approve grant and loan programs for students in the technical college system.

“One of the things I’m really excited about is to create a new Zell Miller HOPE grant,” said Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville. “It’ll cover 100 percent of tuition for technical college students ... if they maintain a (3.5 grade-point) average.”

Deal proposed raising the state’s HOPE scholarship and grants by 3 percent over last year, with the inclusion of $10 million to establish low-interest loans for technical college students, as well.

“I will say without hesitation, when Georgians learn, Georgians earn,” Miller said. “In my view, education is the key to prosperity.”

Education is the key to jobs, with Deal proclaiming around 12,000 government jobs have been trimmed in the past five years. But, he said 217,000 private sector jobs have been added.

“Downsizing government is a good thing,” Miller said. “We’re not talking about teachers, we’re not talking about law enforcement, we’re not talking about public safety. We’re talking about administrative positions.”

Also in his budget, Deal included $35 million for the Port of Savannah, bringing the total to $266 million.

“I intend for us to start dredging the project this year,” he said. “This was first authorized by Congress in 1999. ...We have studied and planned long enough. It’s time to start moving dirt.”

The project is to deepen the port from 42 to 47 feet. Deal supports the project to further economic growth in the state.

It’s an election year for Deal as he faces two other Republican challengers in the primary, including Georgia School Superintendent John Barge.

Deal used the opportunity of his State of the State address to point out successes over the past three years.

“When I took office, we had a depleted emergency fund,” he said. “Now, with your help, we have grown our Rainy Day Fund by 518 percent.

“When I took office, we still had revenue numbers that made across-the-board budget cuts a necessity,” Deal added. “Now, with your help, we have grown our year-over-year revenues for each quarter that I have been governor without raising taxes.

“This is what we’ve done in three years. Imagine what we will do in the next five.”

Deal’s total proposed budget is $42.3 billion, a 3 percent increase from the current fiscal year.

Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, whose district includes part of South Hall, said the state’s in a good place today compared to previous years.

“With what (the governor) inherited (from) where we were, and now to where we are with being the best place for business,” Barr said. “We’ve had revenue growth this year (of) 3.5 percent and it looks like it’s projected to go 4.5 percent next year, all that while cutting taxes and reforming some of our business tax ... bringing lots of jobs into Georgia.

“It’s conservative principles at work and it shows they do work, so I think that’s exciting for all of Georgia.”

Democratic response to Deal’s speech came from Jason Carter, a state senator and gubernatorial candidate.

“The single biggest failure of Georgia’s current leadership, and the biggest drain on our economy, is the dismantling of our education system,” said Carter, the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter. “It’s not conservative to cut funding for education at the state level, and then watch property taxes go up.”

Carter said the governor is forgetting about the middle class in favor of big businesses; he said state education cuts over the years have forced an increase in local property taxes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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