Part two of Georgia’s two-year legislative session is under way. Weather delays notwithstanding, campaign fundraising for this year’s elections is on legislators’ minds so expect a quick 40 days.
The governor announced Jan. 10 that he would call a special session if Georgia became a finalist in online behemoth Amazon’s search for its next headquarters. On Jan. 18, Atlanta became one of 20 candidates (out of 238 applicants) that made the first cut. Before legislators rush off, however, there is some important unfinished business on the table since 2017.
Education legislation held over, especially, needs attention. Last year, legislators approved providing grants of $100,000 to fund facilities for public charter schools, which often struggle to pay for their buildings. But no funds were allocated in the state budget. These schools need the help and funding equity.
Georgia’s tuition tax credit scholarship program is so popular that it reaches its $58 million cap on donations on the first day of every year. Last year, the House approved legislation to increase the total amount Georgians can contribute to the program, which helps fund student attendance at private schools. The bill stalled in the Senate.
Thousands of Georgia’s children benefit from an education their families would otherwise be unable to afford; this is low-hanging fruit on the tree of education options for Georgia’s students.
Education Savings Accounts enable parents to personalize their child’s learning. Using a debit card with their child’s public education funds, they can purchase from a list of state-approved education services. ESAs operate in five states already, but legislation introduced last year to allow ESAs in Georgia languishes in the Senate.
Reforms to Georgia’s outdated defined-benefit pensions for teachers are long overdue; 401(k)-type defined contribution plans would help attract great teachers by improving the portability of their retirement plans and the return on teachers’ investments.
And it will improve the state’s bottom line. This is a priority for Georgia taxpayers, because Governor Nathan Deal’s FY 2019 budget proposal includes an additional $361.7 million for the Teachers Retirement System “to fully fund the actuarially determined employer contribution to keep our pension system on sound footing.”
Healthcare costs and access continue to challenge many Georgians, but the House ignored the Senate’s unanimously approved, two-page bill to facilitate direct primary care, in which doctors charge low monthly rates for cash-based primary care, much like a gym membership.
In a baby step reducing scope-of-practice restrictions on health professionals, dental hygienists now may treat their dentists’ patients in safety-net settings without the dentist present.
Affordable healthcare would be helped a lot further without certificate-of-need requirements for medical facilities and equipment (a bill stalled in the House) and other protectionist measures that complicate licensing and block technological innovations such as online vision services.
The Healthcare Reform Task Force established in January 2017 recommends “a permanent state-wide forum to develop innovative market-based reforms.” The opportunities to innovate have been outlined numerous times by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Policymakers missed a huge window in 2017 – when former Georgia Congressman Tom Price was Secretary of Health and Human Services – to establish Georgia as a leader, embracing flexibility through an innovative Medicaid waiver under ObamaCare. Affordable, quality, patient-centered care is inaccessible for too many Georgians.
Tax reform legislation also fell short last year. Few people remember Georgia’s 2015 Transportation Funding Act (HB 170) mandated tax reforms in 2016, and even fewer legislators bring it up. One easy solution: Immediately reduce Georgia’s top individual income tax rate of 6 percent, in place since 1937, by what the Department of Revenue calculates is the state’s windfall from federal tax reforms.
Leaving more money in the pockets of Georgia’s 800,000 small business owners, most of whom file individual taxes, will increase economic opportunity as they hire more employees, buy more equipment and expand their businesses. Given Georgia’s healthy economy, imminent growth and the level of confidence in the No. 1 State for Business, there’s no better time than now for legislators to forge ahead.
[This commentary is adapted from an op-ed by Benita Dodd that appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Jan. 14, 2018. Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]