Georgia lawmakers left Atlanta early this month with significant accomplishments in hand and without approving some measures the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute flagged as troubling.
Legislation to generate about $900 million more a year for transportation maintenance grabbed most of the headlines after the General Assembly convened in mid-January. But other bills with big implications for the average Georgian also grabbed the attention of GBPI analysts, including threats to funding for essential state services, including education, and a worrisome new tax break designed to benefit insurance companies.
In published analyses and in legislative committee chambers, GBPI weighed in on a variety of critical issues this winter.
- An Education Savings Account bill threatened to drain hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s general fund and away from public schools, health care, transportation and other vital investments. GBPI’s Claire Suggs’ cost calculations raised red flags and the bill did not pass. During the legislative debate, she gave a great WABE radio interview that detailed her concerns.
- Georgia’s public school funding lagged behind levels called for by the state’s own formula for years, by as much as $1 billion in some years as GBPI has documented. Lawmakers approved an increase of $280 million in education funding in the 2016 budget to reduce the austerity cut, though it is still in place. This is the second consecutive year in which austerity has been reduced. GBPI’s research chronicles how austerity cuts over the past decade caused shortened school calendars, teacher furloughs and crowded classrooms.
- A complicated plan touted as a way to boost investment in low-income communities through a tax break targeted to insurance companies raised the eyebrows of GBPI’s Wesley Tharpe. He recognized this year’s “New Markets” bill as a recycled version of legislation Georgia lawmakers rejected before. His report and committee testimony offered suggestions to turn the legislation into a better deal for Georgians.
GBPI weighed in on the biggest news story of the 2015 legislative session, the effort to direct about $1 billion more a year to maintain Georgia’s roads and bridges. GBPI raised concerns early on about a proposed raid on the state’s general fund at committee hearings and in published reports. Tharpe kept people up to date with reports on latest developments as the bill took twists and turns through the House and Senate.
The bill lawmakers passed in the eleventh hour can be chalked up as a big win for Georgians, as it raises the vast majority of the targeted $1 billion for fixes to the state’s transportation network. A remaining concern is the planned redirection of $170 million from the general fund to transportation, the so-called “fourth penny” gas tax. It remains to be seen how state lawmakers will reconcile the money taken from the general fund.
Lawmakers listened to constituents, the general public and policy experts in grappling with hard questions and shaping many of the laws they proposed during the legislative session. The leadership and collaboration they demonstrated is a promising path for future sessions.