The good news for Georgia is the state’s economy continues to recover from the recent recession and state revenues are heading in a positive direction. The not-so-good news is the state’s leaders continue to put a strong economy and job-growth at risk through spending decisions and policy priorities that are counterproductive in a post-recession environment.
The governor’s proposed 2015 fiscal year budget maintains significant cuts adopted during the economic downturn and defers critical funding decisions to the future. Ongoing cuts to vital programs are bad enough. But Georgia also lacks a plan to pay for education, transportation, health care and state employee and teacher retirement obligations in the future. Those are the building blocks of economic development in Georgia. Georgia simply doesn’t have enough money to do the people’s business. For the good of the state’s economy, it is time to address these fundamental budget and revenue policy challenges.
The greatest challenge facing Georgia lawmakers is finding a way to fund our public schools, universities and technical colleges so they can meet the challenging benchmarks set by state leaders. The K-12 funding formula endured more than a $1 billion cut in each of the past five years. The financial squeeze for Georgia’s 180 local districts caused more than 70 percent of schools to shorten the standard 180-day school, 80 percent of districts to furlough teachers, 95 percent to increase class size, 62 percent to eliminate electives, 42 percent to eliminate art and music programs and 70 percent to cut professional development for teachers. The governor is proposing $314 million more in 2015 than last year to partially restore the K-12 funding formula austerity cut, which leaves a $750 million shortfall.
The governor says the $314 million will allow all school districts to eliminate teacher furloughs and ensure a 180-day school calendar for all students.
Even so, many of the problems caused by years of underfunding public education will remain. Most of the cuts, such as those to the electives that round out a child’s education or the professional development that helps teachers improve, will still exist.
Georgia is jeopardizing its ability to recruit and retain high quality teachers because teachers have not had a base pay cost of living adjustment in years, while health insurance costs increase, furloughs continue, professional development is cut and class sizes swell. All while ever-evolving education reforms dictate greater performance and put the onus for students’ education achievement on the classroom teacher.
A reform of the K-12 funding formula is long overdue and is expected to take place during the 2015 legislative session. If the formula is adjusted to enough money to provide a high quality education for every Georgia student, including an adequate pay and benefit package for teachers, it will most likely require a billion dollars more than the state spent in recent years. The alternative is to adjust the formula to fit the depressed funding level as it exists, cementing the current cuts. That would be a disaster for Georgia’s students.
The story is similar for higher education in Georgia. Budget cuts to the university system for the past 12 years delivered larger classes, more part-time instructors and a near doubling of tuition. Changes to HOPE Scholarship and HOPE Grant eligibility put them out of reach for many students. The students who do qualify HOPE get less help than in the past. As higher education becomes less affordable, the governor’s Complete College Georgia goal of 250,000 additional graduates by 2020 will grow more elusive.
Financial support for Georgia’s education system is just one way state government can help grow a quality workforce to meet the demands of business. To ensure a better quality of life for all Georgians the state must solve transportation problems, pay state employee and teacher retirement obligations, fund the State Health Benefit Plan. It’s time to reduce the caseloads of Child Protective Service workers to keep children in state care safe, support hospitals and maintain other health care infrastructure. Of course, this is in addition to maintaining the state’s responsibilities for the health, safety and regulatory functions of the people of Georgia. Georgia can’t take these vital steps without future cost. But not meeting these challenges will cost Georgia jobs and economic growth.
Georgians deserve better than a state that careens from crisis to crisis. We need a plan forward. Any business facing such challenges would create a strategic plan of action with measures of success. Where is Georgia’s strategic plan? It is time for state government to step up to provide services Georgia citizens and businesses demand and do what it takes to generate the revenue to pay for it. Our future economic health is at stake.