Outgoing Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal told state lawmakers not to neglect the "orchard" of policies planted during his seven years in office.
The draft $26 billion budget his office published just afterward, too, was more about spending on programs that Georgia has already set up, rather than new items.
"Over the past seven years, we have endeavored to plant whole orchards of opportunity, some of which will not bear their largest fruits until those who come after us are sitting where you sit now," said Deal to the state senators and representatives packed into the House chamber under the Gold Dome on Thursday.
Much of Deal's annual State of the State speech touched on what's happened during his seven years in office. Among them, the growth of the film industry since the Legislature passed a tax exemption and set up film industry training, the spread of "accountability" courts that aim to reform certain defendants rather than jail them and waiving tuition for certain technical college degrees.
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His draft budget for next year is about $1 billion more than the budget for the year that ends in June. But that difference is pretty much due to higher growth-mandated spending, the sorts of expenses that rise because a population goes up, like K-12 spending .
"There’s not a lot of discretionary funds in there," said Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff. One of the biggest costs will be a new $361.7 million to shore up the pension fund for teachers. Those jumps in payments won’t go away in future budget years.
"As long as we require this rich of a program with our retirement system, we will always be required to shore it up, to infuse it with money," said Riley.
The state will also spend a new $255.9 million to fund Medicaid growth and to offset the loss of federal funds and funds from a civil court settlement with a hospital company.
The budget also includes a new $22.9 million to fund recommendations from Deal’s Commission on Children’s Mental Health. That includes therapeutic foster care, grants for mental health care in schools and other services.
The state House and Senate will start reviewing the budget next week. The final spending details will be settled toward the end of the session, probably in late March.
A Democratic leader said Deal's speech was positive, but wished the governor had outlined substantive plans to get health care to more Georgians and to spend more money on K-12 education.
"There are a lot of areas where we can do more," said state Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson of Stone Mountain.
"We haven't done a lot of things we should do, like reduce classroom size, improve our teacher salaries. And we cut areas … like health care for bus drivers or workers in the cafeterias."
While state spending on K-12 education has risen since Deal took office in the aftermath of the recession, the state doesn't fully fund its own spending formula.
State Democrats have also supported expanding Medicaid — health insurance for low income people — to more Georgians. Deal and other Republicans have argued the price is too high.
But Henson did say that Democrats have agreed with some of Deal’s agenda, like the criminal justice reforms that have seen some offenders channeled to probation and rehabilitation rather than prison.
During the roughly 45-minute State of the State speech, Deal's last as governor, his voice faltered a few times, as someone's might if they were coming to tears. It was mostly when thanking his wife, Sandra Deal. She’s a former teacher who as first lady has made a mission of promoting child welfare and literacy.
The next State of the State speech will be delivered by a new governor — the contest so far has attracted four fairly prominent Republicans and two prominent Democrats. The two Democrats each want to be the first from their party to win the top office since Sonny Perdue took office in 2003.