As Georgia lawmakers opened the 2017 General Assembly Jan. 9, our top legislative priorities included renewal of a fee critical to the state’s health care system, momentum for a bottom-up tax cut for workers and commitment to supporting high-quality public schools.
Lawmakers debated those issues and many others before adjourning last week. They did act on some, but also let some opportunities slip by.
Extend the state Medicaid provider fee to keep hospitals open and help ensure Georgians can see a doctor:
Lawmakers and Gov. Nathan Deal agreed and expedited approval. Georgia lawmakers use the fee to raise roughly $311 million a year and draw down more than $600 million in federal funds.
Georgia’s rural hospitals already struggle and hundreds of thousands of people are uninsured. Georgia can still expand Medicaid to close the insurance-coverage gap and tackle other health challenges after Washington’s early unsuccessful attempts to undo the Affordable Care Act.
Give a tax break to Georgia families working their way to the middle class:
Also known as a Georgia Work Credit, the tax break for Georgians who work in low-wage jobs didn’t survive the late-session negotiations between the chambers. The broader tax package died on the last day of the session as well. The 2017 legislative session is the beginning of a two-year cycle, and the tax legislation is now carried over until next year. The Georgia Work Credit and other sound tax reforms will remain a priority for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Scrutinize plans to shift money from public schools:
Lawmakers considered redirecting state money to pay for private education, while setting aside for the second year a broader plan to remake Georgia’s school funding formula. House Bill 217 proposed to raise the cap to $100 million from the current $58 million on a program that diverts tax revenue from the state to organizations that provide private school scholarships.
Senators tried to trim that increased cap to $65 million but couldn’t come to an agreement with House members before the session ended, and the cap remains at $58 million. Educational Savings Account legislation to benefit private education at potential state cost of up to $710 million in three years gained little traction.
Protect Georgia’s economy and budget by ensuring a welcoming environment for immigrants:
One Senate bill and two House bills threatened to waste up to $1 million in taxpayer dollars to change driver’s license and identification cards issued to immigrants, including refugees and legal permanent residents. These were among a series of bills designed to make it harder for foreign-born Georgians to attend school or live and work in peace.
State lawmakers sent the proposed $25 billion 2018 budget to the governor’s desk before the 40th legislative day, an uncommon occurrence. Some notable things he’ll consider before his early May deadline to sign the 2018 budget that takes effect July 1:
A much-needed boost to salaries of child welfare workers by 19 percent is $26 million of the governor’s 2018 budget proposal, designed to tamp down the 32 percent turnover rate among caseworkers in the Department of Family and Children Services.
$11 million for a new Integrated Eligibility System to more efficiently help qualified Georgians gain access to Medicaid, food stamp benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other public supports
$5.4 million for 107 new child welfare workers to better safeguard young Georgians in peril
$160 million for a long overdue 2 percent cost of living adjustment for certified K-12 teachers, school bus drivers and school nurses
$19.3 million for waivers that allow Georgians with physical or intellectual disabilities to receive care at home or in the community rather than live in residential facilities
(Fayetteville native Wesley Tharpe is policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta think tank focused on increased resources for social programs.)