Gov. Nathan Deal spoke to a large gathering of Republicans and Tea Party members on Nov. 22 in Dawson County. The event was sponsored by all three of the counties I represent as House District 9 Representative (Lumpkin, Dawson and Forsyth).
Deal covered a wide range of topics that would be looked at during the next Session of the General Assembly, as well as updating us on the budget situation.
He reminded the audience that balancing Georgia's budget required deep cuts and reducing the size of government to fill the $1.5 billion hole in the budget, which he inherited when he took office. We did this without raising taxes and were able to keep Georgia's AAA Bond Rating. The authorized size of state government was reduced by 14,000 slots. Many of those slots were already vacant, but by eliminating them from authorization, new legislative action will be required to increase the current size of government.
We have reduced Georgia's budget by more than 20 percent during the past four years, but that isn't enough. In spite of revenue growth of 6.8 percent, Deal has asked his department heads to reduce their operating budgets another 2 percent.
Two budget areas seemed to be particularly worrisome to the governor - the criminal justice system and Medicaid.
He said: "It costs about $18,000 a year to keep somebody in prison."
With more than 60,000 prisoners, that comes to about $1 billion.
"That is a lot of money and we've come to a point in the state's history where we have to decide who we're mad at and who we're scared of. We need to lock up the ones we're scared of. We've got to figure out a better way to deal with the ones we're just mad at," he said.
During the 2011 Session, the Legislature created a taskforce to look at criminal justice reform.
Some of the early reports have convinced the Governor that methods other than prison are better and cheaper. Georgia may be the ninth most populous state, but it has the fourth largest prison population.
The governor said that he would propose new revenue "to be used for creating accountability courts across our state."
He mentioned DUI, drug, mental health and veterans as areas needing special court attention.
He believes "that we can deal with these individuals under intense supervision that is much less expensive than simply putting them in a jail or prison cell."
If "Obamacare" is upheld in the Supreme Court it could break the budget. More than 500,000 more Georgians making up to 130 percent of the poverty level would be enrolled in Medicaid.
Georgia simply can't afford that kind of hit. Deal said that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Florida lawsuit in which Georgia and 25 other states have joined.
Education was not ignored as the Governor spoke of teacher quality and HOPE funding. He is convinced that a good teacher in a classroom with a large student population is better than two poor teachers with a small number in classes.
"We have the opportunity in this state to really turn our education system around. We have to have principals who supervise their teachers, and if they've got a teacher that is not performing, in the most kind and gentle way possible, suggest that they should consider other employment," Deal said.
The governor explained that HOPE is funded only by the lottery. It does not receive any money from the state's revenue sources. As such, HOPE cannot be allowed to spend more than the lottery brings. He also explained that lottery revenue funds both pre-K and technical college grants, but most people think only of HOPE which is the best scholarship program in the nation.
Some students comment that lottery ads should be reduced and that money go toward scholarships. That was tried in 2002, leading lottery revenues to dip drastically. Those ads and new and changing games are what keep our revenues up.
The governor closed with his challenge from last year. He will be announcing that Dec. 17 is a Day of Service.
He said that "the idea is to encourage residents to go out in the community and give back through volunteerism on that day."
Deal said: "We are encouraging people all over the state to engage in a day of service."
The 2012 Legislative Session begins the second Monday in January, and I'll keep you informed about what to expect.
Let me know what the Legislature needs to do for you next year.
Rep. Amos Amerson can be reached at 689 N. Chestatee Street, Dahlonega, GA 30533; phone (706) 864-6589; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact Gerald Lewy at (706) 344-7788.