As published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
A reeling state health care system. Chronically underfunded public schools. Working families and communities that need a financial boost.
State lawmakers convene in Atlanta this week with those pressing issues on their to-do list once again. Georgia’s 236 legislators also are required to pass a budget, expected to top $24 billion this year. They are sure to tackle other issues as well and float a few surprises over the course of the 40-day legislative session. But health care, education and critical tax revenues seem certain to take a turn in the spotlight in coming weeks.
Top lawmakers say a key focus is to stabilize Georgia’s financially strained health care system. One priority to stanch the bleeding is an extension of a fee paid by hospitals to fund Medicaid and PeachCare. Legislative authorization for this revenue is set to expire this July and its loss would blow about a $900 million-sized hole in the state’s next budget. Georgia’s rural hospitals are already struggling to stay afloat and hundreds of thousands of uninsured Georgians don’t have access to a doctor. Medicaid expansion appears to be a fading option while federal subsidies to offset charity care costs at safety net hospitals are set to shrink later this year. Georgia’s fragile health care system needs the provider fee renewal and other remedies from the 2017 Legislature, stat.
Gov. Nathan Deal appears poised to move ahead with a plan to remake how Georgia funds public K-12 schools in the 2017 legislative session. The proposal developed by the Education Reform Commission that the governor convened in 2015 offers district leaders more flexibility to match funding with district needs.
The proposal’s most glaring shortcoming is that the reform commission didn’t assess how much it costs to educate all of Georgia’s students to today’s state learning standards. It also lacks an inflation adjustment so school funding will fall behind rising costs. Whether or not this is the year state lawmakers adopt a new way to calculate state school spending, lawmakers can at least fill the $166 million hole left in this school year’s budget, as measured by the current funding formula.
More than a few state lawmakers are riding an electoral wave tied to economic angst and uncertainty. One way to help families worried about falling behind is to carve out a tax cut for Georgia families who work but still struggle to make ends meet in low-wage jobs. A Georgia Work Credit, or state Earned Income Tax Credit, provides a bottom-up tax cut to workers earning low wages such as sales clerks, construction workers and nurses. More money in the pocket helps workers and their families afford basic necessities like child care and helps ensure a reliable customer base for small businesses and local economies.
Before lawmakers gavel the session to a close at midnight on the 40th day (give or take a few minutes, based on 2016), they are expected to debate the merits of casinos, guns and a host of social issues.
When the day’s headlines focus on these issues, remember about half the state’s spending is for education.
Decisions at the Gold Dome in coming months will help determine whether everyone in Georgia has access to a doctor when they get sick, can go to a great public school and keep their families on the path to the middle class. Make progress on those three issues and lawmakers will return home in the spring to families whose lives are improved because of what they accomplished.