This week brought some high profile issues to the table, including the budget and a HOPE bill that are putting us on the right track to taking care of the issues most important to Georgians.
The Senate passed the amended Fiscal Year 2011 budget this week after it was approved by the House of Representatives, which lays out our spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year that ends June 30. While revenues are beginning to level out, we are still facing about a $2 billion budget hole. We’ll have to make some difficult decisions in the 2012 budget, but our goal is to shift some of the savings realized in the FY 2011 budget to cover expenses in FY 2012.
The amended budget totals $18 billion, which is all we’ll have to spend until the new budget kicks in this summer. Financial shortfalls for FY 2011 were numerous.
Among the top budget discrepancies: Enrollment growth in K-12 education will cost us $95.7 million more than we anticipated; a less-than-anticipated federal match of Medicaid expenses will cost another $144 million; we have to spend $13.4 million as a result of a Department of Justice settlement regarding our mental health system. To come up with a solution, we chose not to make a few large budget cuts but many small cuts. Across the board, state agencies and departments will make an average 4 percent cut. Some agencies will save more. We ensured that the smallest cuts were made in the state’s education system.
In an effort to continue being fiscally responsible, the Senate also passed the Taxpayer Protection Act of 2011, a Constitutional Amendment to limit state spending.
If approved by voters, Senate Resolution 20 would limit the growth in state government by restricting the state from spending any money in excess of the previous year’s budget adjusted for inflation and population. Any additional revenue beyond the spending limitations would be required to go into the Rainy Day fund until it reaches 15 percent of the previous year’s spending, or will be used to pay off state debt and state income tax cuts. If Georgia had utilized this practice over the last 20 years, we would have $2.5 billion additional dollars in shortfall reserve. The resolution has garnered enormous support from many advocacy groups such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Americans for Tax Reform and the National Taxpayers Union.
In addition to producing a balanced spending plan for the state, another of our top priorities this session is to overhaul the HOPE scholarship program to ensure its sustainability for future generations. If we do nothing, HOPE will be unable to meet its obligations in just two years. The governor unveiled legislation this week that maintains the current merit-based scholarship for students with a 3.0 grade point average (GPA), but adjusts the amount annually based on lottery revenues. Students attending public colleges and universities will receive 90 percent of the Fiscal Year 2011 tuition rate, and those attending private institutions will receive $3,600. This decouples the scholarship from rising tuition rates and ensures that HOPE is sustainable for students in the future.
The bill also creates the Zell Miller Scholarship program to reward Georgia’s top students with full tuition coverage. It will be awarded to students with a 3.7 GPA or higher and who received at least a 1200 SAT score or scored at least a 26 on the ACT. The Hope Scholarship program will no longer cover books and fees, and eliminates funding for remedial courses, ensuring those funds go to Georgia’s best and brightest students.
Georgia’s Pre-K program, also funded through the lottery, will continue to be a universal program serving 4-year-olds throughout the state. It will move from a six and a half-hour to a four-hour program, adding 5,000 slots and $4.5 million for extended day slots for at-risk children. We will also add $4.2 million to increase the quality of Pre-K.
With HOPE, Georgia introduced the first merit-based program of its time, making Georgia a national leader in education. Since its creation in 1993, HOPE has provided benefits totaling more than $5 billion to over 1.2 million students pursuing post-secondary education. It’s our responsibility to ensure that future students can take advantage of these opportunities, creating a bright and educated workforce for Georgia.
Sen. Steve Gooch represents the 51st Senate District, which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Pickens and Union counties and portions of Forsyth and White counties. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via e-mail at email@example.com.