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Wade: The second week of session
Will Wade

The Georgia General Assembly resumed its work on Tuesday, Jan.19 for the second week of the 2021 legislative session, which is commonly known as “budget week.” The House and Senate Appropriations committees held a series of joint budget hearings this week, where Governor Brian Kemp delivered opening remarks and presented his formal recommendations for the amended budget and upcoming fiscal year budget. Later in the week, House Appropriations subcommittees quickly got to work to further examine the recommendations and requests for the current year’s amended budget. 

I attended these budget hearings mostly virtually and it was still a busy week under the Gold Dome as we worked to ensure that critical state funds are spent wisely while our state continues on the road to economic recovery. 

The Georgia General Assembly is required by our state constitution to pass a balanced budget each legislative session, and as such, the appropriations process is one of the most important responsibilities we are tasked with each year. In this session, my colleagues and I will first consider legislation for the Amended Fiscal Year 2021 (AFY 2021) budget, which adjusts the current fiscal year’s budget to account for changes in revenue. Then, we will turn our attention to the Fiscal Year 2022(FY 2022) budget, which is the budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1 and ends June 30 of the next calendar year and is set at a revenue estimate of $27.2 billion. Last June, in the midst of the pandemic, the General Assembly prepared for the worst when it passed a reduced the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, bracing for the economic fallout due to COVID-19. However, I am pleased to share with you that Gov. Kemp reported optimistic revenue projections that will allow us to restore and expand funding in certain areas of the budget to help rebuild our economy.

One of the governor’s top budgetary priorities is to restore funding and resources to our K-12 and higher education systems to provide Georgia students with high-quality educational opportunities and the essential skills needed to enter the workforce. Consequently, Gov. Kemp’s proposal includes more than $647 million in the AFY 2021 budget and $573 million in the FY 2022 budget for K-12 education. These appropriations would fully fund enrollment growth, regardless of any reductions in enrollment this fiscal year due to COVID-19. Under the governor’s proposal, our higher education systems would also see restored and additional funding to account for enrollment growth during the current and upcoming school years. Gov. Kemp also announced that Georgia’s education system is estimated to receive more than $3.5 billion from the federal Education Stabilization Fund to ensure that our teachers and school systems are equipped with the necessary resources to provide the best education possible to Georgia students throughout the pandemic.

Gov. Kemp’s budget proposal also reinforces the critical role of Georgia’s expansive transportation infrastructure, which fuels our tourism and logistics industries, as well as attracts businesses looking to bring well-paying jobs to Georgia. To properly maintain this infrastructure and plan for future economic needs, the governor recommends adding nearly $200 million in both the AFY 2021 and FY 2022 budgets to the Georgia Department of Transportation for roadways, including $38.8 million for the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA). Leveraging more than $500,000 in future Guaranteed Revenue Bonds, the SRTA would focus on developing our toll system and reducing traffic delays on busy interstates. Gov. Kemp’s budget also accounts for $110 million in general obligation bonds for transportation. This bond package includes $100 million to repair and replace bridges and $10 million to upgrade our more than 1,000 miles of short-line rail, both of which play an essential role in supporting Georgia’s manufacturing and agricultural industries.

The governor’s budget also seeks to promote growth and prosperity across our state, particularly in rural areas that have faced unique challenges during the pandemic. To that end, the FY 2022 budget proposal includes nearly $40 million for the one Georgia Authority to establish a Rural Innovation Fund, which would offer resources for public-private partnerships tailored to meet the specific needs of every rural community. Additionally, Gov. Kemp recommends an appropriation of $20 million in the AFY 2021 budget and an additional $10 million each year going forward for the OneGeorgia Authority to establish a broadband infrastructure grant program. Many of us have been able to adapt to working from home using virtual apps and programs during the pandemic, yet rural communities with limited broadband access have struggled with remote learning and work-from-home environments. This appropriation would provide rural communities with access to funding that would enable them to leverage federal, local and private resources to implement much-needed broadband expansion.

In an effort to protect the health and wellbeing of Georgians, Gov. Kemp’s budget would increase access to affordable health care. Gov. Kemp recommends allocating more than $329 million in the upcoming fiscal year for Medicaid and PeachCare to cover the projected needs for some of our most vulnerable citizens. His FY 2022 budget proposal also includes $76 million to implement the Patients First Act, which would allow our state to identify innovative health insurance coverage solutions and increase access to health insurance for low-income Georgians. Gov. Kemp’s proposal for health care funding could alleviate rising health care costs, as well as give employers the ability to expand their business or raise wages for employees.

 The state’s fiscal economist, Dr. Jeffrey Dorfman, also joined us during the budget week and provided important insight regarding Georgia’s economic forecast as we continue to battle COVID-19. Dorfman shared that Georgia’s successful recovery is partially due to the governor’s decision to reopen the economy last year, as well as the ingenuity of Georgia’s business owners who figured out how to operate amid the pandemic. He also explained that U.S. personal income is still above the March 2019 level by 2.9 percent as the federal government supplemented many incomes last year, and Dorfman stated that he believes that Georgia’s labor market has recovered as best as possible until the pandemic is over. Overall, he reported that consumer spending was strong this past year, which has been held up by various federal assistance initiatives, and this has helped our sales tax collections tremendously. Dorfman also stated that most households are in a much better financial condition than a typical recession, and Georgia’s economic recovery will get stronger as COVID-19 vaccinations continue this next year. We will monitor further economic projections like this as we craft a state budget that takes care of families and businesses here in Georgia. 

After the joint hearings concluded, several House Appropriations subcommittees met this week to delve even further into Gov. Kemp’s recommendations to create the amended budget bill for AFY 2021. The Georgia Constitution requires the state budget bills to begin in the House; therefore, each Appropriations subcommittee will pass portions of the state budgets, and those portions will be brought before the full House Appropriations Committee, which will review and pass balanced budgets for AFY 2021 and FY 2022. The budget bills will then go to the House Rules Committee to be scheduled for a vote on the House floor. After the budget bills make their way through the House, the bills will be transmitted to our counterparts in the Senate, where they will begin the same process.

Finally, during the second week of the session, the House Committee on Assignments completed its work and announced committee assignments for each representative. I am excited to announce that I have been appointed to serve on the following committees for the next two years: Banks & Banking, Education and State Planning/Community Affairs. You can learn more about these committees on our public website here: https://www.legis.ga.gov/committees/house.

We will return to the State Capitol on Tuesday, January 26 for Legislative Day 5. I hope to be setting up my office on Monday, 25th. Now that we have received our committee assignments, House committees will begin meeting regularly to consider legislation that best serves you and your family, and many of our conversations will continue to revolve around the state budget. I encourage you to contact me with your input and thoughts on proposed legislation or current events that may impact our community. You can reach me by phone at my Capitol office at (404) 656-0188 or by email at will.wade@house.ga.gov. I hope to have my office assignment later this month. 

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative