New State Budget Marks Progress, Leaves Important Work Undone

Georgia’s new annual budget signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal last week marks a positive step forward on education and a few other crucial issues, yet also falls short of addressing some of the state’s most pressing needs.

The approved spending plan for the 2019 budget year that begins July 1, 2018 includes a fully funded K-12 education formula, more money for foster care and a boost in support for mental health and substance use services, among some other positives. At the same time, state leaders missed chances to improve the lives of millions of Georgians, especially allowing another year to pass without accepting the billions of federal funds available to put a health insurance card in every Georgian’s pocket.

When the General Assembly reconvenes under a new governor next January, budget writers can build on this year’s foundation with additional investments in the pillars of an economy that works for everyone—strong public schools and early education, well-funded hospitals, affordable paths to college, quality child care and other services that help people and communities prosper.

The state’s budget is the most important piece of legislation Georgia lawmakers consider each year and the only one the law requires. It provides the money to educate about 1.7 million Georgia children, help about 450,000 Georgians attend colleges and universities and allow nearly 2 million people who are elderly, disabled, children or low-income parents to see a doctor when they’re sick. The budget plays a critical, daily role in Georgia’s communities, helping pay for roads, hospitals and public safety officers. What’s included in the spending plan, as well as what’s left out, sends a clear message about state leaders’ priorities.

This year, the state budget’s most positive aspect is the renewed commitment to K-12 education. Georgia lawmakers reached a critical milestone in this year’s legislative session by finally closing Georgia’s persistent K-12 austerity gap, after 15 years of failing to fully fund its own formula. The General Assembly added $167 million to the 2019 state budget to send school districts across Georgia the full amount promised under the formula for the first time since 2002.

The positive investment ends and era of funding cuts that totaled more than $9 billion from 2003 to 2017 and led to higher class sizes, teacher furloughs and deep cuts to art, music and extracurricular activities. Lawmakers also took a step in the right direction by investing $15 million in bond money for bus replacement so Georgia students can travel safely to and from school.

Nonetheless, Georgia schools still face financial challenges that make meeting students’ needs difficult, such as declining long-term support for student transportation and an outdated funding formula that’s ill-suited to meet the needs of the 21st century economy. Future lawmakers committed to K-12 schools can build on this year’s valuable progress by finding ways to ensure every Georgia child can access a quality public education, such as reforming Georgia’s 33-year old funding formula and pursuing innovative local strategies to tackle the effects of entrenched poverty.

A stronger commitment to K-12 schools is just one of the positives in the 2019 spending plan. It also includes $21 million for the state’s Children’s Mental Health Commission and about $15 million to strengthen financial support for parents raising children in Georgia’s foster care system. Community challenges such as the ongoing opioid epidemic are straining the state’s ability to meet demand for child services in recent years, and the new money is aimed to help shore up critical gaps and bring Georgia more in line with other states.

Lawmakers also deserve credit for a series of modest yet crucial investments to help adults struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. More Georgians than in the past wrestle with these challenges, which left untreated can pose a steep barrier to personal success and full participation in the economy. But most people hold the potential to stay on their feet and contribute if they get the services they need. Lawmakers budgeted $6 million for a new Behavioral Health Crisis Center, $5 million in community-based services for people with mental illness such as supportive housing and $4 million for substance abuse recovery programs.

In contrast to this year’s positive developments, lawmakers and Gov. Deal also left billions of dollars in federal funds available for Georgia hospitals and families sitting on the table by refusing yet again to expand Medicaid under the national health law.

About 240,000 Georgians make too little money to get financial help for health insurance on the federal marketplace and do not qualify for the state’s stingy Medicaid program. Most of these Georgians are working in low-wage jobs with no health benefits. Some are students, and veterans are a large share. Meanwhile, six rural Georgia hospitals have closed since 2013, and several more are struggling to stay afloat as they serve a high number of patients who lack health coverage. One out of every four rural Georgians will not carry health insurance by 2026, according to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Every year state lawmakers fail to expand Medicaid, the state loses $3 billion in federal funds meant to put a health insurance card in every Georgian’s pocket. Georgia is one of only 18 states yet to expand Medicaid eligibility to cover more low-income residents. For every additional $1 Georgia invests to do so, budget-writers could receive $9 in matching federal funds. It’s a sensible deal with a positive return on investment for Georgia families, communities and taxpayers.

This year’s budget marks the last state spending plan that will bear Gov. Deal’s signature. It includes several positive, noteworthy points of progress. But when the General Assembly reconvenes under a new governor next January, lawmakers can seize a new opportunity to look at a range of sound policy solutions to take Georgia to the next level. Additional investments in things like health care, access to college and affordable quality child care can provide powerful tools to help people and the economy thrive.

The new spending plan offers a firm foundation on education and some other issues, for which lawmakers deserve credit. The job for our state’s next leadership team is to build on the successes and embrace solutions that allow every Georgian to prosper and thrive.

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