Lawmakers Made Small Progress, Avoided Big Budget Mistakes

Taifa for blog

As Published in the AJC

Former drug offenders and their families who struggle financially could get better access to nutrition assistance to help them on a path to a lawful, productive life. Some financially struggling rural hospitals stand to get a cash infusion, although the remedy that emerged from the 2016 General Assembly amounts to a Band Aid instead of the broader treatment available.

These initiatives didn’t grab many headlines during the 40-day legislative session lawmakers wrapped up March 24. Still, while bills focused on controversial social issues like medical cannabis oil and religious liberty soaked up most of the attention, lawmakers also focused on some little-noticed but important initiatives. And thankfully lawmakers left some proposals behind that threatened to do Georgia more harm than good.

One positive development is legislation awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature that expands access to food stamps to convicted drug felons who served their time. The idea is to create easier paths for ex-offenders to become productive members of society. It is part of the governor’s criminal justice reform initiative launched a few years ago. It extends the same access to people with past drug offenses as those with a more violent history who are higher risk. Georgia is one of a handful of states with a lifetime food stamp ban for drug offenders.

Rural hospitals across Georgia are struggling to keep their doors open. Several that serve rural communities closed the past few years. Lawmakers at least recognized the severity of the problem this year by carving out new tax incentives to encourage contributions to rural hospitals. The plan to award $180 million in credits over three years gives a mere nod to the reality that access to medical treatment in Georgia’s rural communities is at crisis levels.

Something more substantial is required to ensure access to medical treatment and save Georgia’s rural hospitals, which are often the largest employers in rural communities. When lawmakers return for the 2017 General Assembly they can close the health insurance coverage gap by extending Medicaid to more Georgians in poverty. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is taking an in-depth look at ways to improve health care access in the state and its findings should be available to lawmakers next January.

It’s hard to imagine that study coming up with a solution more effective than closing the coverage gap by bringing in billions of new federal money for Georgia’s health care system. That is a much more comprehensive and long-term solution to the rural health care crisis than unfocused tax credits. Closing the coverage gap could infuse up to $700 million per year into Georgia’s rural communities while boosting access to health care services well beyond hospital care. The $60 million a year in tax credits pales in comparison.

In some cases lawmakers did right by the state simply by letting bad ideas die. At the top of that list was a pair of plans to slash personal income taxes that generate revenue to pay for education, health care and other essentials to the quality of life in Georgia communities. The income tax accounts for more than half of Georgia’s budget. Top lawmakers stressed early in the 2016 legislative session how important it is for Georgia to rebuild its rainy day fund back to pre-recession levels, as well as maintain the state’s stellar credit rating. Lawmakers took the responsible path and avoided the unpredictable consequences of destabilizing Georgia’s revenue stream.

This prudence should prove important next year. Comprehensive education reform was one of the most anticipated debates of 2016, but the governor shelved it on the eve of the legislative session. A critical part of that reform is an expected overhaul of Georgia’s 31-year-old education funding formula.

Education accounts for more than half of state spending, so income tax cuts threatened to tie the hands of lawmakers with new budget constraints when they return to the Gold Dome next January. You can be sure enough problems will emerge without adding that headache.

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