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Education a priority in budget
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The General Assembly has one constitutional obligation each year: To pass a balanced state budget. The budget passed the House on Friday and will serve as a spending guide for the state beginning July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. The FY2017 budget is $23.7 billion, which is an increase of $673.9 million, or 2.9 percent, over the amended FY2016 budget.

Education spending accounts for more than half of the annual budget each year.

As a result of revenue increases, the FY2017 includes a $300 million appropriation for K-12 education for local school boards to give salary increases, eliminate furlough days or increase instruction days for education.

The House version of FY2017 also includes $5.1 million for a 3 percent pay raise to teachers in Agriculture Education and Tech/Career Education programs, school bus drivers, lunchroom workers, nurses and Regional Education Service Agency (RESA) employees.

The budget provides an additional $28.6 million in funding for Pre-K teachers for salary increases up to 3 percent, as well as increasing salaries for assistant teachers.

The FY2017 budget also provides funding for higher education initiatives in our state, including the HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships.

Since 2012, the number of Zell Miller Scholars at both public and private universities has significantly increased, and to account for this increase in eligible scholars, HB 751 allocates $59.1 million for FY2017 for Zell Miller and HOPE Scholarship recipients.

FY2017 also appropriates $29.4 million in funding to the Move on When Ready dual enrollment program and an additional $1.2 million to the North Georgia Military Scholarship Grants program.

Georgia has been at the forefront of criminal justice reforms, and since the implementation of these reforms, state juvenile justice facilities have seen a 25 percent decrease in population.

To maintain this progress, FY2017 includes an additional $3.8 million to expand the state's accountability courts, which are aimed at providing community alternatives, as proven alternatives to sentencing, to rehabilitate offenders and juveniles. In his State of the Judiciary, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson credited accountability courts with reducing crime by 45 percent, and with saving the state more than $51 million in prison costs in 2015.

FY2017 also allocates $5.6 million to support educational initiatives in the state prison system, including operational costs for two charter high schools and expansion of GED fast track, vocational, and general education programs.

By providing these individuals with beneficial skills, it will make their transition to re-entry more seamless and reduce their chances of recidivism.

Georgia's recidivism rate is at its lowest in 30 years, and I am proud of the work we have done in the General Assembly to give our citizens a second chance.

The final portion of the FY2017 budget I would like to highlight is the inclusion of hundreds of millions of new transportation dollars to improve our state's transportation infrastructure.

As a result of House Bill 170, the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, FY2017 appropriates $825.6 million in new state general and motor fuel funds to help improve the state's roads and bridges to keep freight and our commuters moving safely and efficiently.

Of those funds, $543.1 million are budgeted for capital construction and maintenance projects; $204.7 for routine maintenance; and $41 million in Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants (LMIG).

Prior to the passage of HB 170, Georgia's roads averaged resurfacing once every 50 years.

As our population has grown, so has our need for transportation investment, and with this new funding, we will now have the ability to dedicate the essential resources to addressing Georgia's infrastructure needs.

In addition to passing the FY2017 budget this week, the House passed a number of important bills that are now being considered by the state Senate. House Bill 34, also known as the "Georgia Right to Try Act," was unanimously passed by the House and would give some terminally-ill patients faster access to experimental drugs and procedures that have passed the first of three phases in the FDA drug approval process.

Full FDA clearance of all three phases can take as long as ten years, but with HB 34, terminally-ill patients would have the option of trying experimental treatments that have passed the FDA's Phase 1, meaning the treatments have met all safety precautions.

Four of the bills I authored are now in the Senate, and I anticipate that a fifth will be taken up on the House floor this week.

The sixth is working its way through the committee process, and I look forward to getting it to the House floor prior to day 30.

This Saturday we will be meeting at 9 a.m. at Ryan's in Dawsonville for our weekly informational breakfast. I encourage you to come join us to learn what is occurring at session and to discuss your thoughts and concerns.

I am honored to serve as your Representative at the State Capitol. I am always available to assist you and encourage you to contact me with questions or your opinions.

Rep. Kevin Tanner can be reached on his cell phone at (678) 776-5059, at the Capitol at (404) 656-0152 or by email at kevin.tanner@house.ga.gov.