Today, we gather to talk about the state of the state in Georgia. This is a state that we love, and a state that we call home. Not as Democrats, not as Republicans – but as Georgians.
My roots go deep here. I’m a 9th generation Georgian. For 200 years, my family has farmed the Georgia soil, run Georgia businesses, taught Sunday school and done what we could to help our neighbors and strengthen our state.
But it is not my past that brings me here today. My wife Kate and I have two young boys – that are five and seven. And it is their future – and the future of all Georgia’s families – that concerns me today.
Here’s the simple truth: If you’re a big business… if you’re a political deal maker or you are one of the Governor’s friends …chances are, things are going well for you in Georgia. But if you’re a small business or regular middle class family, chances are, you’re feeling forgotten. Groceries. Gas. Local property taxes. Underfunded schools and larger class sizes. The cost of a college education. It is getting harder and harder for middle class people in Georgia to make it.
And our current Governor doesn’t get it. Governor Deal says Georgia today is “at the pinnacle.” He is bursting with pride that some magazine has rated Georgia the best place to do business.
You can’t tell that to the 363,000 Georgians still looking for work. Our state ranks 40th in the nation in its unemployment rate. Twenty-seven percent of Georgia’s children are living in poverty—that’s one out of every four kids, and the 6th-worst poverty rate in the country. And we have a child welfare system that has shamefully failed to protect the children in its care. That's no victory. It's a moral failure that has been ignored for too long.
And in Georgia today, the middle class is still losing out. Adjusted for inflation, the average Georgia family in effect makes $6,000 less than the average family did 10 years ago. That’s a real pay cut. In 2002, Georgia ranked 15th in median household income; today we rank 33rd.
That means that middle class income has dropped twice as fast in Georgia as it has in the rest of the country.
I believe in creating a strong climate for business. But you can’t have a strong economy if you leave the middle class and small business behind.
Today in Georgia, if you have a big company, with a direct line to the governor’s office, you get what you need. But if you have a small business, you don’t get that treatment. If you are a middle class family trying to send your child to a college or technical school, you don’t get that treatment.
And that’s not just wrong – it is bad for business. Because you know the best way to create jobs? Growing small businesses. A good education system. And middle class families with money in their pocket. Those things help everyone’s business from top to bottom.
But our governor has forgotten that. At the end of the day, we need a governor who takes as much pride in how he treats Georgia’s families and Georgia’s small business as he does in how he treats his big-business friends.
Sometimes little things tell a lot about somebody. Before this week, Governor Deal has given three State of the State addresses. And not once – not once in those three speeches– did he mention the middle class. For this governor, the middle class is just not on his radar screen.
I know we can do better – but we have to face the facts and focus on the future.
The single biggest failure of Georgia’s current leadership – and the biggest drain on our economy – is the dismantling of our education system. Like the old song says, the governor is trading in tomorrow for today, and the results for our education system have been devastating.
Since 2008, Georgia’s public schools have lost more than 9,000 classroom teachers while the number of students has gone up. As a result, 95% of school districts have had to increase class sizes. And Georgia now ranks among the worst in the country in how many educators we have to teach our students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Georgia has the 4th worst high school graduation rate. Almost three-quarters of our school districts have stopped teaching students the full 180 days per year.
There is simply less educating going on in our state.
And to add insult to injury, not only are we getting less and less education – we’re paying more in property taxes. In fact, 38 districts raised local property taxes to make up for the Governor’s education cuts.
And it’s not just our school children. As a result of this governor’s policies, we lost almost 45,000 of our technical college students. In two years, the number of people going to
Georgia’s technical schools went from 195,000 to 150,000. That is a crisis not only for those students and their families, but it’s an economic disaster waiting to happen.
It’s nice to have a magazine say you are pro-business, but if you’ve decimated the technical colleges in this state, the way this Governor has, and you’ve denied businesses the skilled, trained workers that they need…You’re hurting Georgia’s businesses – not helping them.
We cannot continue down this path today and expect a strong economy tomorrow.
Our education crisis is not just about numbers. It’s about real Georgians who are trying to educate their kids and improve themselves so they can be prosperous productive people.
As a State Senator, I led an education task force. I’ve travelled this state and met with hundreds of parents and educators in rural Georgia and elsewhere who have been forgotten by this administration. These are proud people. Good people, who work hard and love their schools. And the first thing they do is they tell you about the successes they’ve had in the face of daunting odds.
But these incredible educators across our state – they stood in the school cafeterias and auditoriums sometimes with tears in their eyes as they told me what was happening to the kids in their classes. The tears didn't come from a lack of ability or merit. They came from frustration with the utter failure of the Governor and politicians in Atlanta to treat those kids right.
As I said before, education is personal for me. My wife Kate teaches in our public high school. I know the challenges she faces. I live with them. And I want for every teacher what I want for her – the chance to do what she loves – to see her students succeed.
My two boys—Henry is in first grade at our local school, and Thomas starts will start kindergarten there this fall. Those kids are the most important thing in my life, just like your children and grandchildren are for you. I know their future depends on the education we give them. And I want for every child in Georgia what I want for my two boys – the chance to compete and succeed in an economy where the competition isn’t just here at home – but in China and India and all across the world.
The Governor says that by slashing education, we’ve been saving money. Well, the bottom line is we’re not saving anything. The farmers in my family would say we’re “eating our seed corn.”
And I was raised to believe you reap what you sow. Unless we invest in education, we will never have the economy and the jobs that we need.
Now, the first step to solving any problem is to tell the truth about what’s going on. And here’s the truth: our education budget is broken.
So, I propose a new approach. I believe we need a separate education budget – essentially a trust fund for education that will keep the politicians from raiding it to pay for other things.
My proposal is simple. Every year, the legislature would be forced to consider the state budget in two parts. The first part would be our budget for education. That’s our seed corn; our investment in the future. Then once the education budget has been approved, we move on to funding the rest of the government. And we balance the budget every year as we are required to do.
Today our education budget is a shell game. A separate education fund will make our investment in education the state’s top priority.
When it comes to education, we talk about accountability for teachers, for schools, and even for parents. I think it’s time we also talk about accountability for the politicians in Atlanta. To me, setting out clear priorities for how our money gets spent – and living by them – that’s what it means to be a fiscal conservative.
Now, money isn’t always the answer – even in education. But not every spending cut makes sense.
It’s not conservative to cut funding for education at the state level – and then watch property taxes go up. Governor Deal will say he hasn’t raised taxes. But take a look at your property tax bill and tell me if you think that’s true. His cuts in education have become local tax increases. It’s a shell game.
And there are other examples. It’s not fiscally conservative to cut the HOPE Grant for tech school students and the HOPE Scholarship for our college kids while at the same time letting the Lottery Corporation hand out millions of dollars in payouts, have huge marketing budgets and sit on a giant surplus. Georgia voters tolerated a lottery because of the promise of HOPE and now that’s become a shell game too.
We know who is going to pay the price for sacrificing our future: our children and our economy. Trading in tomorrow for today is not conservative—it’s reckless.
Georgians work hard. They’re resilient and they’re self-reliant. They’re not asking for handouts or a free ride. They just want their children to have a shot. A chance to let their God-given talents take them as far as they can go. And if we give them that chance, they will take it. They will make the most of it. They will build great businesses...and strong communities...and proud families. Just as Georgians have always done.
That is our mission. Now it is our responsibility to come together -- Democrats and Republicans -- to work together to give our children that opportunity. If we do that, we'll all be better for it, today and tomorrow.