Election year sessions of the Georgia legislature often yield low expectations while many lawmakers are preoccupied with posturing and preening for voters and special-interest groups to take on real problems.
But this year, lawmakers mostly got it right with a productive session. The closing moments of the session on March 29 yielded some major steps forward on several key topics.
Some of the positive moves occurred earlier. It was in early March when Gov. Nathan Deal signed a long-awaited reform of the state’s outdated adoption laws, a bill held up last year by social conservatives determined to add a “religious liberty” amendment. That plan was pulled out into a separate bill passed by the Senate but which never made it to a vote in the House.
Then in the days before the session ended, Deal announced the state would restore an extra $166 million to the schools budget to erase years of austerity budget cuts. That could help local districts who have suffered to maintain learning levels over a decade-plus of student growth. Hall County’s shortfall during those years totals some $152 million, Gainesville’s $37 million.
With state funding cut, local districts were forced to shorten school calendars, increase class sizes and cut art and music programs. Even then, local taxes often have been raised to balance budgets, leaving taxpayers footing the bill either way.
In the session’s closing moments, lawmakers approved a bill to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of ailments that can be legally treated with prescription cannabis oil. The hope is that by expanding use of such medicine, more who suffer from those ailments can avoid opioids and other more dangerous prescription narcotics.
Legislators also addressed the concerns of rural Georgia hospitals and internet connections that have limited economic expansion in some less-prosperous areas of the state. They also approved another step in Deal’s criminal justice reform, the new law giving judges flexibility to forgo cash bail for poor defendants.
And perhaps their most ambitious move was creating a regional transit authority for metro Atlanta counties that will help ease crippling traffic across county lines. The measure would establish a regional transit authority called the ATL responsible for overseeing transit expansion, including $100 million in bonds to fund projects.
Though all are different issues, their passage points to an overarching theme under the Gold Dome. State leaders understand a growing state can’t skimp on the basics and cut its way to prosperity if it is to become a true economic power.
During the recession, the state had no choice but to limit spending when tax collections shrank. But with those revenues rising and the economy revving up, Georgia must proactively address issues faced by any state seeking to attract new businesses and residents. To ignore those concerns only sends those jobs and workers elsewhere.
We’re not just talking about Amazon, though that is the big fish everyone is trying to hook. The same concerns and priorities are shared by companies with a few hundred or a few dozen employees looking to move operations. In addition to a business-friendly tax base, these companies need a solid infrastructure: Good roads, air and freight transport and communications.
And to lure the best workers, they also want good schools, public safety and quality-of-life enhancements in an environment that welcomes diversity.
At times, state leaders have seem stuck in a time warp, turtles with their heads in their shells unwilling to face the future. Some running for office this year promise little more than “cut government” in any way possible. It’s a popular theme, mostly because of the size and scope of the federal Godzilla in Washington that is everyone’s boogeyman.
But state budgets are different. Sure, there’s some waste in there — there always is — but it’s a pittance compared to D.C.’s appetite for pork.
By law, Georgia lawmakers have to produce a balanced budget; they can’t spend more than the state takes in and charge it to the future, as Congress does. Thus, even in their more frivolous moments, they have to prioritize spending items that make up most of the state budget: Education, transportation, health care and public safety. Small government is good, but not at the expense of having good schools, decent roads and effective hospitals. Rather than downsize haphazardly, government should be the right size to fit residents’ needs and give taxpayers their money’s worth.
If some politicians had their way, the state income tax would be eliminated and spending cut well past the bone. We all want to keep more of our hard-earned money, but we can’t pave our own roads, build our own schools or put out our own fires. Georgians need safe communities, a way to travel to their jobs on time and opportunities for their families to succeed. The stark “go it alone” approach favored by some only serves to drive away potential industries and workers and take the state backward.
Now that the legislature is done and the primary campaigns are in full swing, voters get to decide: Do they want Georgia to revert to a small state of low ambition? Or do they want to create the capital of the new South, not a throwback to the old one, a state of live-work-play communities, multiple transit options, successful public schools, innovative colleges, modern health care options and high-tech communications companies that link us to the world?
The first Georgia won’t add jobs, and will thus lose tax revenue from a shrinking economy. The second will create new opportunities for all and set the pace in the Southeast.
Thankfully, our state legislature seems to recognize this, and has worked to follow the governor’s lead in making Georgia attractive to business not only with low taxes, but with the basics of life they all seek.
We may look back on this year’s legislative session as a turning point in that effort.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.