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Our Views: Growing our future
States economy, jobs will suffer without focus on education, transportation, water
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

Economic and job growth. That issue was the centerpiece of last year’s presidential campaign and remains the focus of all governments as we stagger from the uppercut of a five-year recession.

Keeping the state’s economy moving ahead rather than sliding backward is likely to be a key goal of the 2013 Georgia General Assembly when it convenes this week. With no other overarching issues nor elections for another year, lawmakers should hone in on policies that attract and retain good jobs.

Georgia has begun to rebuild its economic base in recent years with several new manufacturing plants and business headquarters, including a bit technology expansion announced last week in Roswell. Hall County has led the state in job growth, with a several new industries locating here in recent years, bringing more than 1,100 jobs, and a new hospital set to open in South Hall in 2015.

That effort needs to continue. A growing economy, and the lower unemployment it brings, not only improves quality of life, it fills government coffers with the tax revenue needed to provide necessary services and balance budgets. That rising tide makes everyone more prosperous.

To keep the economy growing, lawmakers need to address three key concerns: Education, transportation and water. Should any of those three elements of our infrastructure wither on the vine, new industries and job growth would suffer.

And finding the money each needs will be a challenge. State revenues were 10 percent higher in December from 2011, but forecasts for 2013 aren’t as rosy

It starts with schools. When the recession hit and governments were forced to trim budgets, education-related jobs were lost, classes got bigger and students suffered. Now it’s time to restore the funding school systems need.

In recent years, legislators have focused on providing options to failing schools, with plans for private school vouchers and last year’s referendum — which passed — changing how charter schools are created.

It’s fine to create those pathways and explore innovative approaches. But the state also needs a better overall strategy to improve all public schools, making desperate escapes from low-performing local districts less necessary.

A strong educational system benefits the state’s economy in two key ways. First, it provides an educated workforce for industries locating here who seek a base of well-trained employees. That means keeping the state’s colleges, universities and technical schools fully funded to meet that demand.

But as good schools help lure business, bad schools provide the opposite incentive. Companies looking to relocate will do so where there are good schools for their employees’ children. Georgia’s low ranking on most national educational standards — test score and graduation rates, in particular — will hurt its economy in the long run.

Transportation problems also provide such a disincentive when not addressed. Clogged roads and crumbling bridges hurt worker productivity and could lead industries to relocate to areas with a better handle on how to move people about.

Voters in most areas rejected last year’s referendum on a transportation sales tax, not because the projects weren’t needed but mainly because they didn’t trust state leaders to use the money wisely. Now leaders must find creative ways to prioritize key projects and pay for them with existing state money, federal grants and even toll options.

Growing industries also need a steady source of clean water, in addition to that needed in residential areas. Frequent droughts have threatened that supply; farmers in South Georgia suffered through a dry growing season, putting a dent in the state’s largest industry. Those of us who depend upon Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River system know how precarious that resource can be.

State leaders have tried to address this concern by streamlining the bulky procedures for creating new water supply sources, such as the planned Glades Reservoir in North Hall, and providing state funds. But that process remains too tangled in red tape.

We’re dependent on Mother Nature to provide most of what we need, but we can manage water better at a statewide level. First, a deal must be reached with Alabama and Florida on how to share water within our river systems fairly. Then conservation measures must be enforced to make sure businesses and households are using water wisely.

These three topics all have one common thread: They affect the lives of all Georgians, and have a major impact on economic growth and job creation. Lawmakers would be wise to approach economic growth not just by cutting spending and taxes across the board, but by selectively improving these specific needs to attract good jobs to our state.

It often is the expected task of legislators at every level to secure bags of tax money to take care of the folks back home. Yet every dollar lawmakers funnel into some unneeded edifice in their home districts is a dollar lost to more important priorities. With budgets tight, it makes more sense to invest tax dollars in schools, roads and reservoirs than on pork-barrel projects.

Schools, roads and water. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. If lawmakers focus on improving and fully funding those needs, our economy could grow for years to come.