Having been around a few years, I have come to know that the second Monday of each January is the convening of the 2017 Georgia General Assembly right after Sunday’s Wild Hog Supper. This will mark my 43rd Legislative Session and it is an honor to be recognized as the “Dean of the House” and “Chairman Emeritus” of the House Democratic Caucus. Like all other sessions, this one will be filled with compelling and competing issues. By far, the most important matter in each legislative session is the state budget. It is the only constitutionally mandated legislation that we are required to do as legislators— and it is the one issue that always defines the legislative session.
One of the pressing issues that we will address during the budget process is the Quality Basic Education (QBE) funding formula. The House Democratic Caucus believes that every child should have access to a high-quality public education regardless of where they live, what their parents do, or any other characteristic. However, we must invest the funds necessary to ensure our students receive the education they deserve, or we risk making them—and by extension, Georgia— less competitive in the national and global economies.
Georgia’s public schools have not recovered from more than a decade of austerity cuts. Although recent budgets have restored more money to the classroom, our schools still do not receive the full funding required by the QBE formula. The long-term effect of these cuts has meant educators losing their jobs across the state and 95% of school districts increasing class sizes.
While we have made major strides in the last few years to improve funding, the annual education budget still falls short. Changes to the education funding formula will be up for discussion, and we look forward to working towards a formula that promises a sustainable, long-term solution.
When the budget process unfolds, we must also turn an eye toward other critical issues that impact the health and economic security of our residents. While the fate of the Affordable Care Act is uncertain, it cannot and will not be dismantled overnight. Therefore, we must address the pressing need to expand Medicaid in order to prevent the closure of a dozen rural hospitals in our state, and bring healthcare to nearly 500,000 Georgians. I expect the renewal of the hospital provider fee, or “bed tax” to be a significant issue, as the fee is set to expire at the end of the year. Medicaid and PeachCare funding is extremely dependent on the fee.
Closures are devastating because rural hospitals do more than just provide healthcare – they are the economic engines of communities across the state. When a hospital closes, surrounding businesses are shuttered, jobs are lost, and people are forced to endure ambulance wait times for as long as 90 minutes. The cost of saving our hospitals is too high for Georgia to handle alone. One solution available to prevent further hospital closures is Medicaid expansion. The
House Democratic Caucus will urge legislators on both sides of the aisle to come together to address this issue.
In addition to building a healthy workforce, we must work collectively to build a well-educated workforce that is prepared to enter our thriving economy. While Georgia Democrats must work to ensure that K-12 education is appropriately funded, we must also provide students with the opportunity to attend college. A college education is increasingly important for working Georgians. Approximately 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require some form of postsecondary education by 2020, but many students under our current HOPE scholarship system still struggle to pay for a higher education.
Between 2013 and 2014, 13,000 students in good academic standing were dropped because they couldn’t pay for classes. This problem persists, and tuition costs and mandatory fees have risen consistently over the last several years, while state funding per student has dropped by 26% since 1990.
The House Democratic Caucus is committed to working across the aisle to address the issue of college affordability. Having served on the 2015 Preservation of HOPE Scholarship Program Study Committee a statewide referendum to allow casino gambling in Georgia was proposed and tabled during the 2016 session, but it is expected to return to the General Assembly for consideration this session. While the Caucus has not taken a position on the proposed referendum, our goal is that any such proposal also includes a commitment to funding need-based aid and gap funding under the HOPE Scholarship Program— what we call “HOPE 2.”
I, along with the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, look forward to a productive session where we continue working on behalf of all families in Georgia. It is our honor to continue to serve.