March 29 marked final day of the Georgia General Assembly. While the legislative docket included big impact legislation, at the end of the day, legislators missed several opportunities to pass reforms that matter.
Criminal Justice Reform
Upon taking office, Governor Deal resolved to address criminal justice reform, particularly the Department of Corrections’ skyrocketing budget and the dramatic growth in prison. The approved legislation, HB 1176, includes many of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform’s recommendations. This is a promising step toward addressing the costs of incarceration in Georgia.
The General Assembly passed a hodgepodge of special interest tax breaks and new revenue-options packaged as an omnibus tax bill. While the tax bill results in slight revenue decreases in the first few years, there may be significant revenue increases in the later years. The Special Council on Tax Reform set the stage for more comprehensive reform; however, the General Assembly’s package missed the mark. The many options that could have put Georgia in better position to create jobs and grow the economy were left on the table. Tax reform must stay on the to-do list.
GBPI reported numerous times that Georgia must develop a plan to pay for the $741 million it borrowed from the federal government because the state had no money in the Unemployment Insurance Trust fund to pay for unemployment benefits. A plan for solvency is critical. In the final hours, the legislature voted to cut benefits to the unemployed from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 14 – 20 weeks. Meanwhile, employers’ will be subject to a minimal increase in payroll taxes—not their fair share.
Foreclosure Fraud Settlement Funds
Out of nearly $815 million in settlement funds coming to Georgia, the state received $112 million. Instead of using the funds to develop programs to aid struggling homeowners as the funds intended, Georgia allocated these funds to future economic development projects through the OneGeorgia and Regional Economic Business Assistance (REBA) programs. Georgia is ranked as the 4th highest state in foreclosures in 2011 and has missed an opportunity to further help homeowners impacted by the housing bubble and slow recovery. Holding the state accountable for these funds will be difficult when there isn’t a clear plan that outlines how these funds will be used and who will benefit.
Juvenile Justice Reform
Reform advocates worked with stakeholders for years to develop a model children’s code that would help to modernize the juvenile justice system by incorporating best practices and the latest research in adolescent brain development. The legislation passed the House, but in the final days cost estimates and concerns from various leaders halted its passage in the Senate. This is a major disappointment and missed opportunity for Georgia.
Drug Testing for Public Benefits
One of the most contentious battles this session dealt with legislation that would require drug testing for adults receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits. Hours of rancorous debate didn’t stop the Georgia General Assembly from stigmatizing and penalizing this vulnerable population. If Georgia wants to ensure accountability with every public dollar, then why not hold this same standard to our corporate citizens who receive public assistance, or “hand outs” from the state.
Building a competitive state, with a vibrant economy and good-paying jobs doesn’t hinge on tax breaks alone. It’s important to remember that investments in:
- education are critical to build a workforce that will attract jobs and grow the economy,
- transportation and infrastructure help move people and goods in the marketplace, and
- vital services and supports enhance the quality of life for all Georgians will make Georgia a great place to live, work, and play.
Without fundamental tax reform, Georgia will never have the means to implement these efforts.
Acknowledgement that Georgia doesn’t have the needed revenue was evident this session. This year, Georgia missed the opportunity to do something about it.