We began the second session of the 153rd General Assembly on Jan. 11, 2016. With an ambitious legislative agenda to navigate, and only 40 legislative days to accomplish the task, we got straight to work.
During an eventful first week of the 2016 session, the House convened every day to take up business, committees began meeting to discuss legislation and Gov. Nathan Deal delivered his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate.
My colleagues and I in the House even received a surprise visit from Georgia's own Miss America, Betty Cantrell. The former Miss Georgia was honored on the House floor and helped us kick off the first day of the legislative session by singing "Georgia On My Mind."
The week marked Deal's sixth State of the State address, which he gave before a joint session of the House and Senate, members of the judiciary, staff, members of the media and special guests.
In his annual address, Deal outlined Georgia's successes and opportunities for improvement and growth in the months ahead.
Deal began his address by highlighting the significant economic progress the state has made since the Great Recession of 2008.
Currently, Georgia's Rainy Day Fund, or reserves, have increased to more than $1.43 billion and continue to grow each year.
He noted those same reserves had dropped by $2.3 billion from 2007 to 2011 and were almost completely depleted during that time.
Deal also emphasized the state's lowest post-recession unemployment rate of 5.6 percent.
In addition, Georgia currently has the third lowest construction unemployment rate in the nation at 4 percent, due to more than 22,000 new manufacturing jobs, which have generated more than $900 million in wages to the state.
These positive figures were great news and provided an encouraging outlook.
As our state has seen tremendous growth in manufacturing and construction, Deal announced his continued plan to strengthen Georgia's workforce and address the jobs skills gap that many employers encounter.
Many employers are reporting that they are unable to find enough skilled workers to fill their current openings.
Deal and the General Assembly had targeted 11 areas under the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grants where students receive full tuition coverage from HOPE for training in 140 different programs and technical institutions.
As part of his promise to bridge the skills gap, Deal called on the General Assembly and higher education leaders to add another field to this important list and proposed an addition of $17.1 million of the FY2017 budget to continue the great work already in place through this program.
Comprising more than half of the state's proposed annual budget, education is still the top priority for Deal.
The governor's FY2017 budget proposal calls for a 3 percent pay raise for teachers to come from an additional $300 million appropriation for K-12 education to the local school boards.
Deal noted that in the past three years, 94 percent of school systems used this additional funding to reduce or entirely eliminate furlough days, and with this funding, teacher furlough days should be a thing of the past.
In addition to his education budget proposal, Deal also addressed some of the suggestions from his Education Reform Commission, which was tasked with examining our entire education system and reporting back to the governor and the General Assembly with its recommendations for reform.
One recommendation that came out of the commission is a student based funding formula to replace the Quality Based Education (QBE) formula, which has been in place for more than 30 years. The new funding formula would assess funds based on characteristics of the individual student, as opposed to "rigid, impersonal criteria," and will even incorporate updated explanations for poverty. The governor also spoke of a teacher compensation model to reward teacher effectiveness, as well as a call to State Department of Education and local school systems to evaluate their testing requirements and eliminate unnecessary tests.
To make the best decision for our students, the General Assembly will spend careful time and consideration reviewing the information and recommendations of the Commission.
I am also looking forward to continue talking with local educators and administrators about this important issue.
Also in his State of the State address, the governor echoed an announcement made the previous day in which members of the General Assembly joined Deal and representatives from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) for a press conference to roll out a comprehensive plan for sustainable transportation infrastructure improvements in Georgia.
The new infrastructure maintenance plan will be based on funding from the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, one of the legislatures' top priorities last session. The comprehensive plan included two project lists.
The first is for 18 months and valued at $2.2 billion.
According to Deal, the plan will use roughly 60 percent of the user fees collected from the passage of House Bill 170 last year for repair and maintenance of existing roads, with the remaining 40 percent going towards the construction of new roadways and bridges.
The second list is a 10 year list, valued at more $10 billion.
The proposal is vital to maintaining safe access to our roads and bridges throughout the state and will also serve as a way to continue to promote economic development in Georgia.
I commend Deal and the Georgia Department of Transportation for following through on this initiative.
Finally, after announcing his goals in the State of the State address this week, Deal officially released his $23.7 billion state budget proposal to the General Assembly for the upcoming fiscal year.
Just as the governor listed education as his top priority in his address, he also made education a top priority in his proposal of the state's budget, with $300 million additional funds intended for teacher salary increases, and $26.2 million for Pre-K teacher pay raises.
These are just a few highlights from Deal's budget proposals.
The General Assembly will use the governor's recommendations as a starting point when we review these recommendations in our Joint House and Senate Budget Hearings and Joint Appropriations subcommittee hearings this week.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I look forward to diving deeper into the details of the governor's budget plans to ensure that we are spending your tax dollars in the most efficient way possible.
This Saturday we will be meeting at 9 a.m. at Wagon Wheel in Dahlonega 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 or at the capitol at (404) 656-0152 or via email at email@example.com.