House Speaker David Ralston.
Georgia’s legislators gaveled things to a close last week, and for the first time in a while, it was a session that provided some positive accomplishments for taxpayers.
For the first time since at least 2002, Georgia will not have “austerity cuts” for K-12 public schools in the state budget for the new fiscal year. Gov. Nathan Deal announced he was increasing the state revenue estimate and amending his budget recommendation to include an additional $167 million for K-12 education. That will ensure the state is fully funding the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula and providing local school systems with 100 percent of the state’s share in financing for local education.
During the Great Recession, as legislators were struggling to balance state budgets, there were years when these austerity cuts for local schools totaled more than $1 billion. Some counties in poorer rural areas cut as many as 48 days of classroom instruction from the school calendar just so they could avoid having to shut the system down.
Legislators also took advantage of a revenue windfall provided by the federal tax cut act to cut the top individual income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.75 percent. Deal said it was the first such reduction in the top rate in about 80 years.
"If you can't get re-elected on the things that we did this year, you probably don't need to be here in the first place," Deal joked in a brief speech to the Senate on the session’s last night.
There was good news for supporters of mass transit, as money was found to float $100 million in bonds for transit construction projects. “This investment will go a long way in reforming and addressing our transit system needs,” Deal said.
In tandem with that funding, legislators passed a bill late on the last night of the session that will make it possible to expand transit services beyond Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties and into 13 other metro Atlanta counties, depending upon which ones approve a local sales tax to pay for transit construction projects.
House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and the legislative leadership followed through on promises to help economically beleaguered rural Georgia. Bills were passed to allow the operation of “micro hospitals” in areas where it wasn’t feasible to have full-blown hospitals, a think tank to develop innovative health-care policy proposals was created, and $40 million was put in the budget for rural development initiatives. Deal also included $26 million to extend runways at 11 rural airports to accommodate corporate jets. "I don't think rural Georgia has had a better session than it had this year," Ralston said after the session adjourned.
It’s too early know if any of this will reverse the trends that have plagued rural Georgia, but legislators did make an honest effort in that area.
The end of the session saw the departure of one of the most remarkable legislators of the past few years. Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) spent the past five sessions laboring earnestly for the right of Georgians to use marijuana derivatives to treat various ailments. He succeeded better than you might have expected, persuading the legislature to pass and Deal to sign a bill legalizing the medical use of cannabis oil. But when Peake tried to follow that up with legislation allowing the cultivation of marijuana, he fell short.
This year, Peake was able to make marginal improvements to the current law, getting a bill passed that would add two more conditions to the list of those that can be legally treated with cannabis oil: post-traumatic stress disorder and “intractable pain.” It wasn’t much but it gave Peake a small victory as he headed back to Macon to tend to his business interests. I have a feeling we will hear more from him.