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Education, Medicaid are areas of concern
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One of the most challenging tasks the Georgia General Assembly takes on each year is sorting through the state's finances.

Unlike legislation, the budget isn't something that can be carried over to the next biennial year.

The state of Georgia is required to not only produce a balanced budget for each upcoming fiscal year, but to also revise the current fiscal year budget in order to account for unexpected expenses and fluctuating revenues.

During the 2013 legislative session, the legislature fulfilled its constitutional duty and passed a $19.9 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2014, a slight increase from the $19.8 billion proposal outlined by Gov. Nathan Deal in January.

Georgia is still feeling the effects from a national recession and the pressure to reduce spending, but a decline in state unemployment and an increase in state revenues are signs of life in a weak economy.

The FY 2014 budget is based on expectations of a 5 percent increase in Georgia's collected revenues. Historically, Georgia's budget estimate has always been conservative, but during challenging economic times, we can only afford to support population growth and attempts to fill deficits.

Therefore, if the actual revenues don't match the 5 percent estimate, Georgia will have to drastically revise this budget next January in order to meet obligations for the second half of the FY 2014 fiscal year.

Over the past few years, it has become clear that Medicaid and education are areas of recurring concern. This meant it was necessary to start working on day one of the legislative session to find solutions for both.

During the first week, the Senate passed SB 24, authorizing the Department of Community Health to establish a financial structure to protect Georgia's healthcare system and obtain additional federal funding for the state's Medicaid program.

Specifically, the bill will allow the Department of Community Health to continue assessing an existing small fee to ensure Medicaid rates remain at current levels and give Georgia the flexibility needed to react quickly and efficiently to changes in federal health care policy.

If SB 24 was not passed, Georgia would have needed to come up with approximately $150 million in state general funds in order to trigger matching funds from the federal government.

In addition, hospitals were facing up to a 32 percent reduction in Medicaid reimbursements, which would have meant the loss of services and jobs, especially in rural areas. Hospital closures and layoffs would have been a devastating blow to those communities.

To ensure adequate and uninterrupted Medicaid coverage to almost 1.9 million Georgians, the FY 14 budget also includes:

• $225 million for Medicaid and PeachCare growth;

• $2.8 million in savings in Medicaid and PeachCare for eliminating hospital reimbursements for preventable admissions;

• $4.6 million in restored funding from a proposal to replace current medical coding and billing processes with a system that provides increased compliance with federal Medicaid guidelines.

The Georgia General Assembly was also asked to find better funding solutions for both K-12 and higher education programs in our state. The best investment we can make is in the education of the future generations who will one day become a part of our workforce by not only filling jobs, but creating them.

In order to make sure our students have the best education possible, we need to have teachers who are passionate about their work and know the most effective strategies to challenge students.

Our schools need to have enough personnel to cover an anticipated 1.36 percent in enrollment growth and ensure students receive enough attention from faculty members.

The FY 14 budget adds $146.6 million for this purpose.

In addition, the budget fully restores $2.6 million in Sparsity Grants, which is a grant funded by the state to guarantee all schools are receiving the same amount of state funding.

This is a sigh of relief for many rural school systems feeling the financial pinch because the number of enrolled students is smaller than the number of those enrolled in metro area schools.

Georgia's higher education programs will also benefit from line items in the FY 14 budget.

One of the most prominent initiatives in the budget is the addition of $17.1 million to meet projected HOPE scholarship needs and also increase the award amount by 3 percent.

Students pursuing careers in the medical profession will benefit from a $2 million addition for the Health Professions Initiative and graduate medical education. The University System of Georgia will receive $62.9 million to expand and increase facilities space at institutions across the state.

Our very own University of North Georgia will receive funding to renovate the science building on the Gainesville campus and improve facilities for students undertaking biology and chemistry classes.

Georgia's budget funds the education of our students and provides health care for more than 1.6 million residents. This is why it is so important that the Georgia General Assembly goes through each proposed budget line-by-line and questions initiatives that may not be in the best interest of the state. It's not a fun project by any means, but since I know District 51 is counting on my efforts to review the budget, it is one I work through carefully.

I am starting to schedule meetings with community groups throughout the spring and summer to talk about legislative recaps, the budget and general district concerns. If you would like me to come and visit your group, or if you have some questions about a specific piece of legislation, contact my office at any time.

Sen. Steve Gooch serves as chairman of the Transportation Committee. He represents the 51st Senate District, which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Union and White counties and portions of Forsyth and Pickens counties. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via e-mail at