Deal pitches plans for state to lawmakersBy SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
In his State of the State address Thursday, Gov. Nathan Deal announced several initiatives, including new boating restrictions, restoring 10 days to the pre-K calendar, changes to education funding for public schools and universities and technical schools, and the continuation of the hospital “provider fee.”
Deal first spoke about public safety. He mentioned last year’s “criminal justice reform” package, including “accountability courts.” Deal said the new measures passed last year will keep the state from having to add approximately 5,000 new prison beds and will save at least $264 million. Deal is including $11.6 million for accountability courts in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2014.
To get started, he is requesting $5 million in the budget to create an incentive funding program that “encourages communities to create and utilize these community-based options.”
Those options can range from substance abuse treatment to family counseling and can “provide judges with viable, alternative sentencing options,” Deal said.
These proposed changes can lower recidivism and save money. The cost of each bed in a Youth Detention Center is more than $91,000 a year, Deal said. “It is certainly an area where less costly options must be used,” he said. “Together we can continue to improve our state’s justice systems while keeping our citizens safe by reserving our prison beds for violent offenders.”
Deal then spoke on his suggestions for tighter boating laws, following boating accidents that took the lives of three children last summer.
The Jake and Griffin Price BUI Law would lower the blood alcohol threshold for boating under the influence to 0.08, the same as the threshold for driving under the influence. Currently, the BUI threshold is 0.1.
“If you are too drunk to drive an automobile, you are too drunk to drive a boat,” Deal said.
The Kile Glover Boat Education Law would place limits and educational requirements on young operators of boats and personal watercraft, and would also require children who are 13 or younger to wear life jackets any time they are on an open boat that is moving.
Under current state law, only those 9 and younger are required to wear life jackets on boats. Everyone on a personal watercraft (e.g., Jet Ski) must wear a life jacket already, and there must be life jackets on board boats for each person — they just don’t have to be worn.
Deal also spoke about education.
Two years ago, 20 days were cut from the pre-K calendar. This year, 10 days were restored. For the FY2014 budget, “I have added 10 days to the pre-K school year, thereby restoring it to a full 180 days and increasing the salaries of deserving teachers,” Deal said.
Deal is also again including $1.6 million in the budget for reading mentors.
While most state agencies have seen budget cuts and will again have to cut their budgets, “K-12 education as not subject to these reductions.”
Instead, the budget will give $156 million in funding for enrollment growth in FY 2013, and $147 million for enrollment growth and salary increases for teachers — based on training and experience — for next year. There will be an additional $41 million “to fully fund the revised Equalization formulas adopted last year.”
“We must continue to make K-12 education a top priority,” Deal said. Georgia recently ranked 45 among 47 states that report graduation rates.
Georgians spoke loud and clear by approving the constitutional amendment on charter schools. “The message they sent was this: they are not satisfied with the status quo,” Deal said. “And neither am I.”
Georgia funds public education under the Quality Basic Education legislation, passed in 1985.
The formula doesn’t meet the needs of a 21st century classroom, Deal said. Adjustments were made last year, but more needs to be done. “As we finalize the pilot projects and reforms being produced by our Race To The Top initiative, I look forward to modernizing the way we spend taxpayer dollars so that we can produce more positive results in our public schools.”
“One of the primary reasons for getting an education is to get a job,” said Deal. “To the parents of children who contemplate dropping out of school, you should remind them that they are condemning themselves to the lowest run on the employment ladder, and you should prepare them to continue to live at home because the jobs that will be available to them will be few.”
Deal then discussed higher education.
His budget will propose to focus more HOPE Grant funds on occupations where known jobs are available and shortages exist, including commercial driving, nursing, and early childhood education. “In order to fill these vacancies we suggest directing additional funds” from the HOPE grants “so that over 90 percent of the tuition costs in these program will be provided. That’s putting your money where the jobs are!”
Deal is also proposing to increase funding to the HOPE Scholarship by 3 percent.
Deal then referenced the recent recommendations of the Higher Education Funding Commission. The commission has presented “a solid recommendation that will be the starting point for change from enrollment-based funding to outcomes-based funding in our university and technical colleges,” Deal said.
Health care was another major topic.
Because of the downturn in the economy and the requirements of Obamacare, “we are seeing a growth in our Medicaid rolls” of 100,000 individuals, Deal said. He has decided not to expand eligibility limits for Medicaid under Obamacare. “I did not judge it prudent to expand the eligible population of an entitlement program by adding an additional 620,000 new enrollees, since our state is already spending approximately $2.5 billion in taxpayer funds.”
Deal is asking that the legislature authorize the Board of Community Health to apply the provider fee for hospitals, similar to what they do for nursing homes. The existing provider fee will expire at the end of June.
If the fee, better known as the “bed tax,” is not renewed, “there will be a shortfall in revenue to support the Medicaid program of nearly $700 million,” Deal said. “Since we cannot adjust benefits, the reduction in reimbursements to hospitals would be the only way to keep the program solvent.”
That reduction would approximately 20 percent, “which would seriously jeopardize many of our state’s hospitals.”
Deal also spoke about progress in the deepening of the Savannah harbor, economic development, the state’s “rainy day fund” and ethics.
Matt Gove of Piedmont Healthcare was contacted about the hospital provider fee.
The fee results in higher Medicaid reimbursements.
The Piedmont system of five hospitals was a net loser under the fee, Gove said, though some of the individual hospitals, including Piedmont Newnan, came out ahead. Systemwide, the net loss was around $7 million for fiscal year 2011, he said. The hospitals in Fayette and Atlanta were net losers, while Newnan, Henry, and Mountainside in Jasper were net winners.
Piedmont is in favor of an alternate program being proposed by the Georgia Hospital Association.
“We’re excited to see some progress in the state, certainly, with the funding of the K-12 system,” said Skip Sullivan, president of West Georgia Technical College. “Restoring 10 of the pre-K days, as funded by HOPE, is very, very positive. We think that any addition to that program that was previously cut will show great benefits in the future.”
Deal and the state officials are continuing to focus on the workforce and making Georgia business-friendly.
“That is the work that we do,” Sullivan said. “We prepare people for the workforce. Certainly our jobs and our task are daunting, but it makes us feel very valued in the sense that his focus is what our focus is, and that is putting Georgians to work.”
Current research and literature “suggests that of folks going into the workforce, 80 percent of them need the technical skills we teach,” Sullivan said. “We’ll always be in need of four year degrees, but the workforce itself needs tech skills. That is what we focus on.“
Eighty percent of the jobs are going to be students coming out of our institutions. There is a renewed focus there, and rightly so,” Sullivan added.