Transportation spending, teacher raises and cash for rural broadband development — Hall County’s state lawmakers offered a glimpse of Georgia’s 2018 legislative session on Thursday.
With state government seeing tax revenue climb amid economic prosperity, the issues before state government this year focus on how to capitalize on growth rather than stave off decline.
Times have changed even since 2015, when Georgia had among the highest unemployment rates in the nation. But much of the recent economic prosperity has been focused in metro Atlanta — especially along its northern transportation corridors — and lawmakers believe the state needs to invest in rural broadband and health care to help pull rural Georgia along with its capital city.
The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast featured Sens. Butch Miller and John Wilkinson, and Reps. Lee Hawkins, Matt Dubnik, Emory Dunahoo and Timothy Barr running their large audience through the issues and legislation coming up in the 2018 session that begins Jan. 8.
Right up front was the state’s budget, which is expected to grow 5 percent next year, according to Dunahoo, R-Gillsville.
“That’s the projection. We might be cutting here, cutting there; we might be adding,” Dunahoo said.
A 5.3 percent increase over the $22.7 billion budget in 2017 means lawmakers would have an additional $1.14 billion to use in the 2018 fiscal year.
At least some of that new money will go into education, which at $11.6 billion in 2017 represents more than half of the state budget.
Cash for teachers, colleges
Dunahoo said he expects to see an increase of $514 million in state education spending in 2018, or more than 40 percent of the new revenue next year.
“This includes $162 million for a 2 percent rate for our teachers,” he said.
In the past two years, lawmakers approved funding for a 3 percent raise to Georgia teachers, though how much of that ends up in teachers’ pockets is up to local school boards.
Some of that education spending gets into workforce development and health care issues lawmakers are working on in 2018, including incentives to encourage doctors to work in rural areas and supporting regional technical schools like Lanier Technical College.
Miller, R-Gainesville, also took a stance against lowering the age requirement of the school tax exemption. The state tax exemption for local property taxes is open to residents at 62 years of age, or three years earlier than retirement age.
“If we continue to lower that tax exemption for schools, we will not be able to continue to fund our schools,” Miller told the audience. “All of us went to school and most of us went to a public school. Someone before us paid their taxes in order for us to go to a public school.”
New roads, new technology
Gov. Nathan Deal’s appropriations bill for 2018, House Bill 44, includes $162 million in new transportation funds. With 2017 transportation spending of $1.7 billion, the new spending will push the state roads budget to almost $2 billion.
Much of that new money is coming from House Bill 170, the 2015 bill that restructured and in most cases raised the state’s fuel taxes. The bill’s early years have been aimed at much-needed maintenance projects.
Still, there’s some new construction in the state thanks to the additional cash. The talk on Thursday, however, was more about transit.
Moderator Perry Barnett asked lawmakers whether they supported adding passenger train traffic to the state’s existing heavy rail line.
Hawkins, R-Gainesville, and Dunahoo were solid supporters, with Hawkins going further and saying Georgia needs to expand light rail lines throughout the state.
“In the northern states, they developed this 100 years ago,” he said. “Unfortunately, our MARTA system was not developed along the same ideas — going to places of employment — but more about shopping.”
A commuter-focused rail line would “move a lot more people more efficiently” in the state, Hawkins said.
Miller, however, said in the short term the state needs to focus on making transit more efficient. Georgia has four major transit systems in metro Atlanta.
“Sure, you can buy a card and ride all of them … but they don’t stop at the same places,” Miller said. “You get to one corner and get off of Cobb County transit, well you can’t get on the Gwinnett County transit there. You have to walk four or five blocks over. You can’t get on SRTA there and you can’t get on MARTA there.”
He advocated for “an umbrella agency over all four of those that helps coordinate their development.”
With the state gubernatorial race about to get into full swing, look for calls to help rural Georgia in the 2018 session.
Chief among ideas for state spending are rural broadband, health care and response to the opioid epidemic.
Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said he would consider supporting a sales tax exemption for rural broadband infrastructure.
Faster internet throughout the state would benefit business in general, but rural health care specifically through advances in telemedicine.
Telemedicine allows patients far-removed from hospitals or unable to travel to connect with doctors and other service providers through Skype or another internet-based video portal.
Others said the state needs to invest in scholarships for medical students to receive training in Georgia.
“As we find when children go away to college, if they go to Auburn, where do they end up practicing law or practicing medicine or going into business? Well, they end up in Alabama. If they go to Clemson, they end up in South Carolina,” Miller said. “If those doctors come to Gainesville to train, they’ll end up in Georgia. We have a deficit of doctors right now, so I think this is a very good plan.”
The panel discussion on Thursday covered a wide range of issues in addition to heavy-hitting budget decisions coming up in 2018:
Don’t forget about poultry, said Wilkinson, R-Toccoa: “I think we heard this morning that the film industry has a $9 billion impact on our economy. I would to just throw this in: The poultry industry has a $32 billion impact.”
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a non-starter: Asked about the chances of RFRA being introduced and passing this year, Dubnik said, “I’ll follow the lead of my speaker, David Ralston, who made a comment this week that said, ‘No.’”
Medical marijuana is gaining ground among lawmakers who have seen its effects. Hawkins said he would consider expanding medically proven treatments using cannabinoids that are low-THC. Meanwhile, Dunahoo said he’s seen convincing evidence of its benefits: “When you see children that had … 100 seizures a day, and they’ve been allowed to go to Colorado and take this and they’re down to zero or one or two, that’ll wake you up.”