Gov. Nathan Deal called on lawmakers to support substantial new funding for public education, transportation projects and child welfare reform in his State of the State speech Wednesday at the Capitol in Atlanta.
“This is our annual checkup exam on the body politic, where we measure our vitals, celebrate areas of great health and seek cures for what ails us,” Deal said. “In short, I’m here to report to you today that the state of our state is strong, and getting stronger every day.”
Citing increased tax revenues, job growth and new home construction, Deal said the state’s economy is now in a position to support additional funding for a number of initiatives.
“When it comes to our constituents’ needs in education, health care, transportation and public safety, the sea seems so great and our boat so small,” Deal said. “We may have 10 million challenges, but we also have 10 million oars.”
Democrats rebuffed many of Deal’s proposals following the speech, and said the governor had painted a rosy picture about the state’s economy that doesn’t match reality.
Georgia still has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
“Instead, many are wondering how they will ever pay off credit cards, pay for college or save for retirement,” said Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “Georgians want this to be the best state to do business, but we also want it to be the best place to raise a family, send our children to school, get a job that pays well and save for retirement.”
Deal said he will establish an Education Reform Commission to study how to increase access to early learning programs, recruit and retain good teachers and expand school choice. This commission, which will include legislators and educators, will report its recommendations by August.
Deal also said he would work to the change the state’s funding formula for education, while also committing to additional funding for the state’s public education system in the next budget.
“This year’s budget, coupled with my proposal for next year’s budget, represents an infusion of over 1 billion additional dollars for K-12 education,” Deal said. “Now, the focus is on turning those dollars into academic progress.”
Finally, Deal said he would propose a constitutional amendment to establish an Opportunity School District, which would give the state broader oversight and powers to address public school needs.
Rep. Stacey Abrams, House Democrats’ minority leader, said she wants more details about the amendment including how long the state will manage the districts. Deal’s goal is admirable, she said, but the state contributed to some districts’ struggle by cutting funding in recent years.
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said there would likely be some compromise with the governor when it comes to passing a budget this year.
“That’s a big number,” he said about proposed education spending. “Is it reality or not?”
Deal said ensuring Georgia’s economic prosperity requires substantial investment in roads, bridges and other infrastructure to meet the state’s growing transportation demands.
Deal called on lawmakers to work with him to develop a comprehensive plan to address transportation needs, which may include raising the excise tax, or the per-gallon flat fee on gas.
Deal warned that the state’s economy will take a hit without a plan and increased funding, and the state will remain dependent on federal dollars.
A study committee estimates Georgia needs $1 billion to $1.5 billion more each year to maintain its roads and bridges. The committee found adding roadways or expanding mass transit systems would cost far more.
Democrats want mass transit to be a big part of the discussion, and they could play a role in passing any package if conservative Republicans won’t OK new taxes or fees.
Deal said the only option unavailable to lawmakers is to do nothing.
“If that is our plan, then our roads will slowly slip into disrepair, the safety of our citizens will be jeopardized, and our economy will be stagnated by increased congestion,” Deal said. “That is unacceptable.”
State lawmakers from Hall County have insisted that transportation projects will have a huge impact on the local economy as metro Atlanta pushes its boundaries further north.
“(Deal) made it clear that doing nothing is not a choice,” said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville.
Deal is proposing to create a new Department of Community Supervision aimed at improving efficiency among the Division of Family and Children Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Corrections and other agencies.
Deal is also proposing increased funding to remedy the DFCS.
“These include beginning a mentor program for supervisors, providing for greater career and salary growth potential, promoting the safety and resources available to caseworkers, and improving the recruitment and training of foster parents,” he said.
The new department could get pushback from conservative voters and lawmakers who oppose any expansion of government and new spending.
But other Republicans said some growth in government is necessary.
“I would say that’s more an expansion of responsible government,” Hawkins said. “Everything (Deal) addressed was toward that end.”
Local state lawmakers said they understand it will be difficult to get traction on all of Deal’s spending plans, whether for education, transportation or child welfare reform.
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said budget meetings next week will help give lawmakers a better sense of just how much spending the state can afford and whether Deal’s proposals meet fiscal reality.
“When the cards are dealt, I can play the hand,” he added. “There are so many things that are going to come to the table.”
Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, is one of Deal’s floor leaders this year and stands to play a major role in getting the governor’s priorities passed.
But Miller acknowledged Deal’s aspirations won’t always be an easy sell to voters.
Republican lawmakers are likely to consider raising sales taxes to pay for any additional spending.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said any tax increases will be an easier sell if they are revenue-neutral, or offset with decreases in the income tax, for example.
But with many Republican lawmakers opposed to any tax increases, Deal might have little time to get the revenue he needs.
“Anything that’s going to cost more money, he probably needs to get it done this year,” Bullock said, adding this would give lawmakers ample time to recover before the next election if they do support tax increases.
Democrats said they intend to address several issues Deal did not mention, including health care and wages.
“The governor paints us a pretty picture,” Henson said. “But we know that many families are not better off than they were four years ago.”
Democrats hope to get traction for expanding Medicaid and raising the minimum wage for all private sector employees.
Deal, meanwhile, appears ready to burnish his legacy. But he’ll need the help of legislators to fulfill his agenda.
“The ocean of need is vast, but shrinking, and we will continue to close the distance between where we are and where we wish to be,” Deal said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.