Investing in Georgia’s people is our best path forward

As published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, January 27, 2019

Georgians are ready for a people-first strategy that builds a stronger, more inclusive economy where all families can participate and thrive. For years, state leaders have prioritized growing our economy with a business-first approach by focusing on corporate tax breaks that divert more than $5 billion from the state’s coffers annually. Ensuring a strong, vibrant economy does not have to be a zero-sum game where businesses win at the expense of hardworking Georgians.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.5 billion budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year promises long overdue people-first investments. Kemp’s spending plan includes $483 million dollars to raise the base pay by $3,000 for Georgia’s K-12 educators. The budget includes $120 million to cover a two percent merit pay increase for all state employees, more than $16 million in lottery funds to provide pay increases for Georgia pre-K teachers and a 2 percent raise for assistant teachers.

These are good first steps in valuing the many state employees who earn very low salaries. Workers who make sufficient wages have a better shot at building a more secure future. Families who fare better economically often experience improved education and health outcomes which strengthens Georgia’s economy. Today, far too many Georgians struggle to make ends meet and require better opportunities to get ahead. This is especially true for people of color, low-income families and those in rural communities who combat unequal pay, suppressed wages and other stubborn structural barriers that impede their potential.

One promising investment can put hundreds of thousands of uninsured Georgians on a healthier path to seeing a doctor. Gov. Kemp allocates $1 million for the Department of Community Health to pursue a Medicaid Waiver proposal with the federal government. Now is the time to expand health care access in our state. Expanding Medicaid would provide up to $3 billion in federal funds to Georgia in the first year at a state net cost of just $139.4 to $147.6 million.

Thirty-seven states across the country have embraced Medicaid expansion to improve access to care for their residents. When Georgia lawmakers consider waiver plans, however, it would be wise to create less restrictive eligibility requirements. Arkansas’ well-documented issues enforcing work requirements should be a cautionary tale of how barriers to care hinder and hurt those who need services the most.

Finally, as Georgia’s economic outlook remains strong, state leaders should resist further reducing the top tax rate to 5.5 percent as proposed last year. It would reduce revenues by an estimated $467 million in 2021. Teacher pay raises require committed funds each year as do additional people-first investments such as funding the need-based aid program to improve access to postsecondary education and offering a Georgia Work Credit to low-wage workers. There is no shortage of investment opportunities to strengthen our workforce and the well-being of our residents.

Georgia’s tax rate remains among the lowest in the nation, ranking 42nd for the share of state and local taxes per person. Lowering the top rate has the potential to constrain revenues, threaten investments and introduce a manmade fiscal crisis down the road as the economy slows down.

Georgia remains competitive as the number-one place to do business. Putting Georgians first is the best path forward to maximize our resources and strengthen our human capital, people — the number-one asset in our great state.

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