Week Six 2016 Update
After last week, we are more than six weeks into the 2016 legislative session. “Crossover Day” is approaching fast, so we are beginning to pass crucial pieces of legislation every day of session. Last week saw the passing of several bills, including one of the most important pieces of legislation: House Bill 751, the Fiscal Year 2017 (FY2017) state budget.
The General Assembly has one constitutional obligation each year: to pass a balanced state budget. This budget will serve as a spending guide for the state beginning July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. The FY2017 budget is the largest budget in our state’s history at $23.7 billion.
Education spending accounts for more than half the annual budget. The FY2017 budget includes the following:
- $300 million for K-12 education for local school boards to give salary increases, eliminate furlough days or increase instruction days
- $5.1 million for a 3 percent pay raise for the following groups: teachers in Agriculture Education and Tech/Career Education programs, school bus drivers, lunchroom workers, nurses, and Regional Education Service Agency (RESA) employees
- $28.6 million in funding for Pre-K teachers for salary increases up to three percent, as well as increasing salaries for assistant teachers
- $59.1 million for FY2017 for Zell Miller and HOPE Scholarship recipients
- $29.4 million in funding to the Move on When Ready dual enrollment program
- $1.2 million to the North Georgia Military Scholarship Grants program
- Two new service loan programs ($100,000 each) for large animal veterinarians and the Georgia National Guard to address the need for skilled individuals in those fields
- $44.4 million for formula earnings based on enrollment and increased square footage at both the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia
I also wanted to note that college students will not experience a tuition increase next fall due to the diligence of the Board of Regents to keep college affordable and the work of the governor and General Assembly to provide adequate formula funding.
Due to tremendous population growth, the FY2017 budget also focuses on healthcare for our citizens. Therefore, the FY2017 budget has allocated $66.7 million to offset Medicaid enrollment growth. We also want Georgians to be in close proximity to quality healthcare, which is why the House version of the FY2017 budget includes the following initiatives to ensure basic services:
- $200,000 to maintain the rural dentistry loan program
- $100,000 to establish a loan repayment program for physician assistants and advance practice registered nurses
- $100,000 for the Georgia South Family Medicine Rural Residency Training Program
- $200,000 for OB/GYN physicians who want to return to practice in underserved areas
- One-time start-up grant of $250,000 for the Champions for Children program, also known as the “Katie Beckett waiver” (provides grants to families with medically fragile children who do not qualify for Medicaid)
Georgia has been at the forefront of criminal justice reforms, causing state juvenile justice facilities to see a 25 percent population decrease. In his State of the Judiciary, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson credited accountability courts with reducing crime by 45 percent, and saving the state more than $51 million in 2015. To maintain this progress, FY2017 includes the additional funding to continue progress:
- $3.8 million to expand the state’s accountability courts
- $5.6 million to support educational initiatives in the state prison system, including operational costs for two charter high schools and expansion of GED fast track, vocational, and general education programs (Georgia’s recidivism rate is at its lowest in 30 years, and these types of programs assist with this rate)
The final portion of the FY2017 budget I would like to highlight is the inclusion of hundreds of millions of new transportation dollars to improve our state’s transportation infrastructure. As a result of House Bill 170, the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, FY2017 appropriates $825.6 million in new state general and motor fuel funds to help improve the state’s roads and bridges to keep freight and our commuters moving safely and efficiently. The following are included in those funds:
- $543.1 million budgeted for capital construction and maintenance projects
- $204.7 for routine maintenance
- $41 million in Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants (LMIG)
- $1 million in bonds allocated for the repair, replacement, and renovation of our state’s bridges to ensure safety
Along with passing the FY2017 budget, the House passed a number of important bills that are now being considered by the state Senate. House Bill 34, known as the “Georgia Right to Try Act,” will allow for terminally-ill patients to more quickly access experimental drugs/procedures. Full FDA clearance takes three phrases (up to ten years). HB34 will allow patients to try drugs/procedures that have passed the first phase (meaning treatments have met all safety precautions). Physicians would be required to provide written documentation for eligible patients stating the following:
- patient has a terminal illness
- patient considered all other treatment options
- patient received recommendation by the physician
- patient has given written informed consent
Manufacturers of certain experimental drugs will not be required to offer or charge for the treatment, and health benefit plans have the option to provide coverage to investigational products, but will not be required to cover the costs. Any medical physician, who recommends, prescribes, or treats an eligible patient with investigational drugs, would not be held liable by the Georgia Composite Medical Board under HB 34.
House Bill 798 received overwhelming support. HB 798 would change HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships to consider home schooled students and students from previously ineligible or non-accredited high schools. Eligibility would be determined by standardized college admissions tests, such as the SAT and ACT, which are available to all students. Students who fall in the two above groups who score in the 75th percentile or higher nationally would be eligible for the HOPE Scholarship; students who score in the 93rd percentile would be eligible for the Zell Miller Scholarship. The bill also changes the Zell Miller Scholarship eligibility for students graduating from eligible high schools by requiring a score in the 80th percentile or higher on the ACT or the SAT, in addition to maintaining a minimum 3.7 GPA.
House Bill 879 is another education bill that passed out of the House this week. This bill creates the “Georgia Seal of Biliteracy” to recognize high school graduates who are proficient in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English. Students may qualify to receive the Georgia Seal of Biliteracy by doing the following:
- Scoring four or higher on a foreign language advanced placement exam
- Scoring five or higher on a foreign language international baccalaureate exam
- completing a four-year high school course in a foreign language with an overall GPA of 3.0 or above in that coursework
- Passing the SAT II foreign language exam with a score of 600 or higher.
The Georgia Department of Education would provide the insignia to be attached to qualifying students’ diplomas. Each local school system could choose to opt-in to the program but would not be forced to participate or expend resources. It is our duty to encourage our students to broaden their horizons, and the Georgia Seal of Biliteracy will not only promote the study of foreign language, but it will certify their knowledge for future college and job applications.
Finally, my colleagues and I unanimously passed House Bill 561, which would make the “adoptable dog” the official state dog of Georgia. This bill brings awareness to the importance of adopting animals from shelters, where they face a high risk of being euthanized, and will help save the lives of many shelter animals.
You are always welcome and encouraged to visit my office at the State Capitol.My Capitol office number is 404-656-0213 and my email is Andy.Welch@house.ga.gov. I look forward to hearing from you.
And as always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.