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Despite cuts, state priority on education

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POSTED: January 27, 2010 11:13 a.m.
With the 2010 session under the Gold Dome, there are many issues on the minds of lawmakers that will have a significant impact on you, your families and all of Georgia.
Obviously the first and most important issue is balancing the budget. The only constitutional requirement we have each legislative session is to pass a balanced budget and this will not be an easy task.
Since the economic decline, our state revenues have dropped significantly. Our budget has gone from $20 billion to $14 billion. Our state’s revenue estimate is close to 2005 levels, and since then our population has grown by 600,000.
Without question, this will require lawmakers to make some very difficult decisions.
While many states have full-time, year-round legislatures, Georgia is a part-time legislature with the smallest budget in the country. We have taken every route possible to reduce budget gaps, even furloughing lawmakers.
Although we have significantly reduced government spending, we have continued to make education a priority. Including the university system, education is nearly 70 percent of the entire state budget.
Legislation is being introduced this session that would create an A-F letter grading system of schools. This would allow for more transparency and accountability, while providing parents the ability to see how their child’s school performs compared to others. The state would be able to provide incentives and rewards for schools that show improvements each year or that receive “A’s”
The legislation also includes a measure that would do away with some of the adequate yearly progress requirements that currently burden our schools and teachers.
I will propose a provision to the bill that eliminates CRCT testing for first and second grades. This testing is ineffective and a waste of money and time in the classroom. Florida schools operate under a similar model, which has led to significant improvements in education. Nine years after implementation, Florida went from ranking at the bottom for fourth and eighth grade reading and math levels to beating the national average. Florida also had a 15 percent climb in graduation rates. We can do the same thing here in Georgia and I am pleased the legislature will be taking on this issue.
The governor has introduced a plan to pay teachers based on performance, which would reward those who excel in the classroom. Current teachers could opt into the new program or continue in the current model. In the coming weeks, we’ll be discussing how teachers would be evaluated under this new model.
The governor has shown exceptional leadership on the continued negotiations with Alabama, Florida and Tennessee on the water issue.  We are working on long-term and short-term plans to address our access to adequate water resources. In the short-term, we must update Georgia’s outdated and leaky infrastructure and incentivize conservation. Long-term plans must include expanding existing reservoirs and creating new ones. I look forward to working on legislation that will address both of these plans.
I am very optimistic that we will find a solution this year to address our state’s transportation needs. Gov. Perdue has included $300 million in bonds for transportation in the budget, which will put Georgians to work and get freight corridor projects started that are vital to our economy. The legislature and governor have been working together on a plan that would give voters the opportunity to approve a one-cent, regional sales tax to fund transportation projects in their area. Voters would be given a list of projects that they could approve or vote down.
Many details still need to be worked out, but the idea is to give local areas the ability to fund transportation projects for their region in the most transparent way possible.
Though we have some very difficult decisions ahead of us, we are in a far better position than most states in the country because we held down spending, kept our taxes low and reduced government inefficiencies. We are one of the lowest taxed states in the nation and have the lowest debt per capita. Compare that to Massachusetts, one of the highest taxed and debt per capita states in the country. Massachusetts will also lose a congressional seat in the next reapportionment cycle because jobs and people are moving elsewhere to avoid high taxes and debt placed on them by the state. Massachusetts voters took note and just elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1979.
Georgia will gain a congressional seat in the next reappointment cycle. Businesses and people want to move to Georgia because they see real economic opportunity here. This did not happen by accident; it’s taken a concerted effort to keep spending and taxes low, while using fiscally sound judgment in managing the state.  
While we still have difficult decisions ahead of us, I’m confident our state is headed in the right direction.

Williams serves as president pro tempore in the Senate. He represents the 19th Senate District, which includes Appling, Jeff Davis, Long, Montgomery, Toombs, Wayne, and Wheeler counties and a portion of Liberty and Tattnall counties.  He can be reached at 404.656.0089 or by email at tommie.williams@Senate.ga.gov.
 

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