Midstate lawmakers like Deal’s education emphasis

mlee@macon.comJanuary 15, 2014 

ATLANTA -- Gov. Nathan Deal’s State of the State speech Wednesday emphasized economic recovery and plans to channel more state cash toward education -- including $547 million more for K-12 schools.

Some midstate lawmakers praised his plans and his draft budget. Others, not so much.

“Five hundred million sounds good, but it’s been cut by five billion that local taxpayers have had to pick up” cumulatively over many years, said state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon.

Deal proposes spending nearly $8 billion on schools during the fiscal year beginning this July, against nearly $21 billion in predicted state revenue. State coffers are starting to fill back up as the economy revives.

“Maybe with the influx of revenue coming in we will see school systems start to catch back up,” Lucas said.

The formula that the state uses to divide state school money among districts is “outdated,” Deal said.

But it’s not clear if any amendment to the complex formula will appear during this legislative session. Deal did propose closing one wound that bleeds money from rural school districts: the Forest Land Protection Act.

Under that act, landowners who put forest land into a 15-year covenant get a property tax break from the county, which drives down the tax revenue that helps pay for schools.

The state law was supposed to buoy the forestry industry, although a 2013 state audit could not conclude that it works.

The state is supposed to make the counties whole, but the math doesn’t turn out right for many of them.

Deal wants to send $22.6 million to schools that take a hit from the land protection act, plus more than $17 million to counties and cities.

“This is a big issue for us,” said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, whose district includes all or part of seven counties.

In fiscal 2013, the state spent $14.1 million making counties whole. In all, 131 counties submitted claims totaling $22.6 million, according to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts.

“The burden of making these stopgap funding measures has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the local boards of education,” Epps added.

But the most important takeaway, he said, is “the governor’s recognition of the crucial need of giving teachers and educators the possibility of getting a salary increase for the first time in five years.”

Deal also proposed low interest loans for technical college students and more scholarship money, including tuition waivers for those studying welding, health care technology, diesel mechanics and information technology.

State Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, said, “More education, students in technical schools, it’s something we really need. We need more electricians, more plumbers, more welders. In most towns you don’t have but maybe one.”

“I love the fact that they are doing more for technical education. That is so very important. ... That is the future,” said state Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello.

Deal reiterated his argument that it is too expensive for Georgia to expand Medicaid as envisioned under the federal Affordable Care Act to more than 600,000 more Georgians.

Lucas said, “I think we need to fund the Medicaid expansion at least for three years. They (the federal government) pay the bills” during that time.

Hospitals, too, are looking for those funds, Lucas said.

Republicans generally approved of Deal’s speech, including Perry state Sen. Ross Tolleson.

“I think he did a good job. He has stayed focused on education and on creating jobs in Georgia. Those are the things people care about.”

Joint appropriations subcommittees will start hearings on Deal’s budget proposal this week.

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