This op-ed was first published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Jan. 10, 2016.
Education and health care spending amount to about three quarters of the state budget Georgia lawmakers are set to shape when they return to the Gold Dome this week. Before the 40-day session ends at the outset of spring many other topics will squeeze their way into the headlines. But if you want to know which issues top the state’s priority list, follow the money.
Lawmakers are likely to spend as much time chewing on recommendations just handed down by the governor’s Education Reform Commission as any other issue this year. The attention is warranted, as the seismic changes proposed figure to resonate in public school classrooms across Georgia for years to come.
Georgia is 37th in the nation in spending per student and the commission’s recommendations could well sink the state to a lower rank. The proposed new funding formula uses state spending under the existing 30-year-old formula as its base amount. But the commission adjourned without examining how much it costs to educate Georgia students to the academic standards the state has today. That lack of clarity, coupled with the lack of an allowance for inflation, should give legislators plenty of questions to explore before moving ahead.
The casino industry started courting lawmakers in earnest last summer, dangling a vision of billion dollar gambling-related developments as a new source of money for Georgia’s HOPE scholarship and grant programs. Setting aside societal tradeoffs the state makes if it fully embraces gambling, if lawmakers decide to do this it’s important they tailor it to advance the state’s goals.
When the lottery-funded HOPE program debuted more than two decades ago it covered tuition, mandatory fees and prioritized the award based on financial need. Today’s pared-down version covers much less for all but Georgia’s top high school students and doesn’t give any weight to determine if the recipient needs the help. Meanwhile, the governor’s Complete College Georgia program aspires to add 250,000 more college graduates to the rolls by 2020. A great way to increase the number of graduates is to create a solely needs-based program for students who can’t afford college without it.
While education issues might overshadowed health care in policy debates this year, consensus is growing that the state needs to improve access to medical treatment for 300,000 Georgians who fall into the health insurance coverage gap. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is studying the issue, with an eye toward finding ways to help financially-struggling rural hospitals stay afloat. Several hospitals across the state closed in recent years, gutting the economies of the communities they served and cutting patients off from nearby care.
Even if lawmakers don’t come up with a way this year to use the national health care law to expand access to medical treatment, they can at least take down some of the roadblocks erected in recent years and ease the path for solutions crafted by the state chamber and others.
By the time the closing gavel sounds late on the last day of the 2016 session, lawmakers will have debated many of the big and not-so-big issues of our time. If they can get education and health care decisions right, it will be a night to celebrate.