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Deal changes plan amid public outcry
Legislative update
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Responding to the voices of educators, parents and lawmakers from across the state, including the calls and e-mails from the more than 125 people who attended our town hall meeting in the Liberty County commissioners boardroom March 4, Gov. Nathan Deal has reversed course on his proposal to reduce the instruction day for Georgia’s pre-kindergarten students from six and a half hours to four hours.
Last Monday, the governor announced his new proposal, which restores the full-day program and instead shortens the pre-K year from 180 days to 160. He also cut back on his original proposal to add 5,000 slots to pre-K enrollment, now recommending 2,000 new slots.
Lawmakers had been working on alternatives to reducing the pre-K class day since the governor announced his original proposal for cutbacks to pre-K and the HOPE Scholarship program. Pre-K and HOPE both are funded by Georgia Lottery revenues, which have not kept up with rising costs for both programs in recent years. Changes to the pre-K program will be finalized in the annual state budget for fiscal year 2012, which was approved by the House of Representatives on Friday and now is under consideration in the Senate.

HOPE reductions await signature
A majority of the Senate voted last Tuesday to approve legislation that proposes changes to the HOPE Scholarship program to help offset its financial deficit caused by college tuition increasing faster than lottery revenues. Most HOPE recipients would see their benefits reduced to 90 percent of their tuition costs under HB 326. That percentage would increase or decrease in future years based on the rise or fall of lottery proceeds.
Students who come out of high school with a 3.7 grade-point average and at least a 1,200 Scholastic Aptitude Test score and are able to maintain a 3.3 GPA in college would retain a full HOPE Scholarship for tuition.
Last Thursday, a majority of House members voted to agree with those changes, sending the measure to the governor’s desk for his signature.

FY 2012 budget approved
The House voted Friday to approve an $18.25 billion annual state budget proposal for fiscal year 2012. HB 78, which now goes to the Senate for its consideration, would impose a 20 percent increase on health-insurance premiums paid by Georgia educators and other state employees to deal with a $250 million shortfall in revenue for the state health benefits plan. Although state revenues have increased by 8.3 percent through the first eight months of fiscal year 2011, legislative budget writers are having to deal with the loss of $1 billion in federal stimulus funds that were used to balance the budget last year. Cuts in Medicaid reimbursement rates paid to health-care providers are also a part of the House budget proposal.

Midyear budget finalized

The House and Senate have agreed on final changes to the midyear adjustment to the $18 billion state budget for fiscal year 2011, which ends June 30. The budget amendment reflects an overall reduction of about $300 million in state spending. HB 77 now goes to the governor for his signature.

Billboard tree removal
The Senate voted 37-19 Tuesday to approve legislation that would allow the removal of trees adjacent to billboards on state rights-of-way along Georgia roads. Under HB 179, outdoor advertising companies would be allowed to remove all trees and vegetation within a “target view zone” along the highway where a billboard is located. The measure also specifies that road signs would have to be lowered to a maximum height of 75 feet. Environmental groups throughout the state oppose the legislation because the current restrictions on tree removal protect the beauty and aesthetic quality of our roadways. The measure went back to the House for consideration of Senate changes to the bill, and those were accepted by House members Thursday. HB 179 now goes to the governor for his signature.

Williams, D-Midway, will report periodically during the legislative session, which began Jan. 10 and is expected to last until late March.

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