Lawmakers passed a nearly $22 billion spending plan that includes about $900 million in new revenues, consumed for the most part by school-enrollment growth, increasing retirement benefit-plan expenses for state employees and about $288 million to reduce an austerity cut for public schools. The 2016 budget also increases the local school-district cost of insurance for bus drivers and other non-certified school workers by more than $100 million, so it remains to be seen how much of the $288 million is used for teacher raises and undoing recession-era cuts.
In addition, the Legislature passed a transportation plan that generates nearly $1 billion to begin addressing Georgia’s transportation problems, but takes about $170 million from funding that supports schools and health care to get there.
Anyone who follows Georgia politics understood the legislators’ presession pitch for increased state revenues for transportation would not be an easy discussion. It took courage to stare down the inevitable opposition heavily influenced by political ideology, anti-tax pledges and tea-party leanings. In the end, Georgia lawmakers showed us what governing looks like — a bipartisan agreement to raise new revenues to pay for needed transportation maintenance. While we celebrate this small step, we recognize that to really solve the critical challenges in transportation with new projects, more revenue is needed to get the job done. Gridlocked roadways remain until lawmakers find a way to raise another $1 billion-plus, according to estimates.
I’m glad Georgia is finally fixing its neglected roads and bridges, but I wish lawmakers devoted as much attention to other serious challenges that threaten the state’s long-term economic vitality. Far too many families are working hard and aren’t paid enough to build a future for their children. Persistent problems remain, such as income inequality among low-wage earners. And Georgia is home to the second-highest rate of uninsured adults in the country. We need the same tenacity lawmakers used to start addressing transportation maintenance to fix some of these other public-policy problems. It will take at least as much concerted leadership as we saw this year.
The governor’s office, the Georgia General Assembly and collaborators from the business, faith and private sectors can set the stage again to find money to pay for what’s necessary. I believe leaders can muster the will to strengthen Georgia families while continuing to make Georgia the No. 1 place to do business. Georgia could find more money in the budget by scrutinizing numerous business tax breaks for companies enjoying record profits or that fall short of results the tax break is supposed to deliver. Georgia doesn’t have to choose business interests over families. State leaders can continue to implement policy solutions that help families at the bottom of the income ladder earn more money through wage growth, more quality jobs and a top-notch higher-education system that provides training to improve their skills in the workforce. Those things, in turn, build the income base to pay for projects that relieve traffic congestion and other state needs, which will support economic development and business growth. That ultimately benefits every Georgian at any level of the income ladder. State government shouldn’t play out as a zero-sum game, in which Georgia families lose and business interests win.
I take on this new role as executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute this month. I continue to think about what’s possible for Georgia. The GBPI team is committed to show Georgia ways we can improve education, health care and economic opportunity for all Georgians. I will work harder than ever to work with our elected officials, agencies, the philanthropic community, private and nonprofit sectors to address the policy barriers that keep Georgia from being the state we want. The GBPI team will continue to define policy solutions, resources and strategies that will get us there.
The GBPI takes a holistic view of Georgia’s quality of life and keeps the interests of the average family in mind as we look for ways to improve how leaders govern and do the state’s business. If we don’t do that work, who will?
I look forward to partnering with you.