Midstate lawmakers share their take on session

mlee@macon.comMarch 21, 2014 

ATLANTA -- The things that Georgians are most likely to notice that came out of the state Legislature this year have more to do with education, incarceration and health care, according to midstate lawmakers, not the high-profile bills on guns, abortion or unemployment.

“I thing the biggest impact ... is the funding that was put to education,” said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch.

Georgia must balance its budget every year, so spending is locked to the economy. When the economy is slow, as it has been over the last few years, fewer tax dollars come in and spending dips. That leads to measures like school furlough days.

Schools are still going to feel pain, however, said state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon.

“You got to realize what’s been pulled out of schools” over the years, he said.

School funding has been short more than $1 billion a year since 2010, against the state’s own calculation of what schools should get, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit.

“They took a big hit through the years,” said state Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella.

But as the economy improves and the tax take slowly climbs upward this year, “we’re not expanding any new programs; we’re putting it back into education,” he said.

Tax revenues for February 2014 were 5.3 percent higher than the previous February, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue.

An ongoing collection of criminal justice changes is something else Dickey thinks is intriguing.

This year, one modest legal change created a statewide framework for Veterans Courts, judicial procedures that offer rehab and supervision, instead of punishment, to veterans found guilty of certain nonviolent crimes.

Supporters argued that for many vets who fall into bad ways, it can be because of trauma in the field, so it’s only fair to give them a hand.

That small change is part of criminal justice changes for adults and juveniles initiated by Gov. Nathan Deal. Two years ago, an edit to the law raised the bar separating misdemeanors from felonies on certain nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting.

If low-level offenders end up in prison, Dickey said, “they just learn how to be better thieves, better criminals.”

Georgia has been a big “two strikes, you’re out” state, he said, so “it’s a pretty big turn” for the state.

“I think it’s having an impact on our budget and hopefully time will show us it has a positive impact on our communities,” he said.

The Georgia confinement count is indeed already falling. The state used to leave inmates in county jails, making sheriffs angry by sticking them with much of the cost. That’s dropped dramatically in the last year, saving jails money -- but at the cost, some fear, of turning too many people loose.

Meanwhile, for the non-incarcerated, people are going to be “challenged if they have medical issues,” said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon.

He pointed out that Georgia leadership is dead-set against expanding Medicaid, the heath insurance program for low-income people. If it were expanded to match federal suggestions, half a million more Georgians might be newly eligible for coverage.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon said the best thing for the public is very little, as in the Legislature passed relatively few new laws. “Less government is better,” he said.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service