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Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 11:00am

Democrats Respond To Gov. Deal

The following is the full transcript of the Senate Democratic Caucus' response to Governor Nathan Deal's State of the State address. The response was given by Sen. Steve Henson.

Good afternoon. My name is Steve Henson, Leader of the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus.

On behalf of my colleagues, we commend Governor Nathan Deal for his ideas and proposals to help better manage the state of Georgia. There will be many opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to work with him on legislative and budgetary endeavors.

We are all proud of this state we call home, and we all desire to make Georgia the best place to live and work. Regardless of politics or party affiliations, Georgians are united in the belief that we want a stronger state economy, we need jobs that pay well, we want strong families and we want access to affordable health care.

In order to accomplish these goals, we must work together to improve the state's economic climate. Good ideas for improving our state must come from everywhere and everyone - Democrats and Republicans, policy makers and citizens.

For the past decade, we have watched Georgia's economic condition face many challenges. State revenue projections missed the monthly mark for nearly half of 2012.

Simply, the Governor cannot continue to blame all of our state's budget problems on the recession. Our state budget problems stem from poor decision-making and wrongly placed priorities.

We head into a new state budget cycle with a $400 million deficit in Medicaid spending and an additional $250 million shortfall due to increased enrollment in our schools and colleges. These are examples of two budget obstacles, but there are many more.

In real terms, this means working Georgians have seen two decades worth of economic Democratic progress disappear. In the ten years of Republican oversight our families have seen depressed wages, decreased wealth and historically high poverty, and tax cuts that have eliminated trillions of dollars from our public education programs.

Median household income in Georgia fell by nearly $2,000, adjusted for inflation, between 2010 and 2011 - its lowest point since the early 1990s.

Despite some promising signs of increasingly strong job growth on both the state and national levels, average Georgians still feel the effects of the Great Recession and state policy decisions and will for many years to come.

The current administration has continued its budget cuts to crucial programs, which undermine the path to full recovery and increase the hardship of Georgia families. That is why, moving forward, Georgia's leaders must move away from the bone-deep budget cuts of recent years and instead pursue a more balanced approach to our state finances.

Only by coupling strategic investments in the future with the revenue needed to pay for them will Georgia have a chance of building an economy that works for everyone - an economy that promotes long-term prosperity, provides low and middle income families the opportunities for advancement they deserve and promotes business-friendly communities.

Make no mistake. We are treading water with our state budget and our heads are barely above the water. It isn't just the economic recession or general economy that holds Georgia back - it is our current governance and poorly determined economic priorities.

Addressing our state's economic situation through holistic tax reform and improved priority setting should be a top concern for state leaders.

Every person, family and business knows that the cost of health care - whether it is a visit to the doctor or an insurance payment - has climbed beyond a reasonable level.

Governor Deal has said in no uncertain terms, that he intends to leave more than 650,000 Georgians without health insurance, even though the state has an affordable way to get them coverage. He has strongly expressed his opposition to expanding Medicaid, which practically guarantees that Georgia will remain stuck with a substandard health system - marked by an unhealthy population, doctor shortages, and leaving hospitals at risk.. He is also leaving billions of dollars on the table that could bolster Georgia's economy in the short term - and over time by fostering a healthier workforce.

Nearly 2 million Georgians lack health coverage, and expanding Medicaid would solve the problem for a significant portion of these people with only minimal cost to state taxpayers, while bringing billions of new dollars to the state economy.

Many in Georgia's medical community - hospitals, doctors and others - have embraced the expansion because they understand the ramifications for Georgia's health care system, and its economy, of remaining among the states with the highest share of residents without insurance.

While the governor says that Georgia faces doctor shortages in some parts of the state, increasing the number of Georgians with insurance will actually alleviate this problem by making the state more attractive to health care providers.

Failing to expand Medicaid will actually increase private insurance costs and increase the likelihood that Georgia employers will owe penalties for not providing affordable coverage to their employees.

Governor Deal is leaving nearly $34 billion in new federal funds on the table that could otherwise be used to expand access to health care through Medicaid. This is money Georgians have already paid in federal taxes. By not accepting the federal money, we are in effect turning Georgians money over to other states.

Simply saying no thanks and leaving billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands Georgians without health coverage is not a solution. This is not about President Obama, petty politics, or federal hurdles. It's about Georgia. This is not about free health care. Our citizens have already paid the federal taxes that will be coming back home to Georgia.

Putting politics over people is not in the best interest of Georgians and plugging the holes in our state budget with gimmicks is not a long-term solution. We must make the best financial decisions we can make in order to advance our state.

Governor Deal has also decided that Georgia will not set up a health insurance exchange, a program designed to help those who CAN pay for private insurance to find affordable programs. By not creating a state health care exchange, the Governor will allow Georgia's program to be run by the federal government.

Democrats have proposed legislation to expand and are urging the Governor to accept the federal Medicaid funds available to make our state budget whole and to make our citizens whole.

Democrats will stand for common sense solutions that build a healthier Georgia. We will stand up for the working families of our state who are struggling to pay their mortgage, buy health insurance and put food on the table.

Every decision we make during Georgia's legislative session will be focused on the fiscal health of our state, along with the health and education of our citizens.

Creating jobs, creating communities that work, building strong families, creating an educated workforce and guaranteeing an honest government that works for everyone will be the focus of Democratic policy makers.

We will not be distracted by legislation that veers from this course.

Policies that strengthen responsible and fiscally sound investments are necessary. That is why Democrats have proposed legislation this session to study all special interest line items to ensure we are actually creating jobs - not just talking about creating jobs.

Democrats believe there is no greater investment our state can make than in educating our children. Fully funding Georgia's Pre-K programs, reducing class sizes and investing in technical school students. Businesses will be attracted to Georgia when they see great schools and a workforce for the future.

Balancing the state's budget is not only a good idea it is our constitutional mandate Using Medicaid funds to balance the state budget, without providing those funds or services to citizens is unconscionable.

Democrats will be the voice of the people of Georgia and not special interests.

According to the U.S. Census, Georgia's population grew by 18.3 percent from the year 2000 to 2010, a rate nearly twice the overall growth rate of the U.S. as a whole (9.7 percent). Our population is diverse and growing even more so.

We cannot balance our state budget giving special interest tax breaks to the well-connected while shifting the financial burden to the middle class. Any taxation plan must be done fairly, balancing the needs of families and businesses. We must examine every potential revenue sources.

State legislators should work across party lines toward innovative, forward-looking solutions.

We must build a state economy that is not based on outsourcing our Georgia jobs to foreign countries, creating tax loopholes and allowing risky financial deals. We must build a common sense economy that is built to last - one that is built on investments like education, transportation, higher education and research and development.

Georgia's Senate Democrats will approach legislation with these four things in mind:

Creating a sustainable economy in which business thrives.
Creating a transparent and honest government that works for everyone.
Building strong families.
Educating people for success.
Democrats will continue to work to restore the promise of Georgia's HOPE Scholarship programs through fiscally sound approaches.

Democrats have introduced legislation aimed at improving the lives of Georgians.. And, of course, we have additional ideas that we will unveil in the coming weeks.

We have heard loudly and clearly from Georgians they want government fixed so that it works.

We pledge to respectfully and collaboratively work with Republicans with a dialogue that is civil and productive.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.