March 16, is Crossover Day and Day 30 of our 40-day legislative session. For the remaining 10 days, each body of the general assembly will only consider bills passed by the other body. Before the night is over, the House will have considered close to 100 bills.
The most important legislation passed by the House last week was the FY 2012 Budget. The legislation will direct state spending from July 1 through June 30, 2012 and totals $18.1 billion in state funds.
While state funds have experienced a net increase of 2 percent as a result of improving economic conditions, total spending for FY 2012 has decreased by more than 4 percent due to expiring federal stimulus funds. This puts us per capita below 2001 budget levels.
Considering that our population has increased by 18 percent in the same decade, it is clear that some difficult cuts had to be made.
In general, we accounted for these reductions by asking state agencies and departments to cut spending by an average of 7 percent, keeping growth expenses in check, and by enacting measures that allow us to reduce service and payment costs.
Education is our state’s highest priority, and we worked to protect our schools from as many budget cuts as possible. The fact that education makes up more than half of Georgia’s budget makes it impossible to make the necessary budget reductions without some cuts to this area. The House was able to soften some of the governor’s recommended cuts. We lowered cuts to direct classroom instruction to just 1 percent and indirect classroom instruction to 4 percent.
Additionally, we managed to soften the recommended 10 percent reduction to school nurses to 4 percent.
Despite these cuts, we made sure to include funding for differentiated pay for math and science teachers, as well as the innovative “Move on When Ready” initiative, which allows high school juniors and seniors to explore broader graduating options.
I am happy to report that we adjusted the pre-K program from the recommended 4-hour day to its current six hours of instruction. This ensures that full nutritional and educational opportunities are available for 86,000 children next year. The cost savings were achieved by reducing the pre-K year from 180 days to 160 days and putting two more children in each classroom. Each classroom has one teacher and one paraprofessional, which ensures a 1:11 teacher to student ratio.
HOPE Scholarships and Grants as passed in HB 326 are reflected in the Georgia Student Finance Commission budget. What is noteworthy, however, is that Accel, Engineering, Georgia Military and Public Safety Memorial Grant Scholarships are maintained now with state funds instead of lottery dollars.
Other noteworthy portions of the FY 2012 budget include restored Medicaid funding that allows low-income Georgians access to vision, dental and podiatry services. We also restored funding for Alzheimer’s Respite, Meals on Wheels, and Independent Care Waivers that serve aged, blind and disabled Georgians.
Recently we discovered that Georgia has a $250 million shortfall in the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP). Through a series of moves, we have been able to cover about $200 million of this shortfall. Unfortunately, $30 million will have to come from increases in employee premiums. As of March 1, the plan covers 694,847 Georgians: 61 percent teachers/K-12, 19.6 percent retirees and 18.4 percent state employees.
The second most important piece of legislation considered was agreeing with the Senate’s version of HB 326, the distribution of HOPE Scholarships and Grants. With a nod to our small schools, we agreed that the high school valedictorian and salutatorian would be eligible for the Zell Miller Scholarship without regard to their SAT scores. Students currently receiving HOPE could be classified as Zell Miller Scholars if their GPA is 3.3 or higher.
Beginning with students receiving HOPE for the first time on or after July 1, 2011, a student has only seven years in which to utilize the scholarship.
Should a student serve in the military during this period, the time in the military will not count against the seven years.
My Saturday morning breakfast with constituents continues on March 19 and April 2 at 8 a.m. at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Dahlonega. On March 26 we will meet at 8:30 a.m. at Ryan’s in Dawson County.
Rep. Amos Amerson can be reached at 401 Capitol Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30334; phone (404) 657-7857; fax (404) 463-2044; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact Gerald Lewy at (706) 344-7788.