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Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 12:34pm

Schools Top State Of The State, Democratic Response

On Wednesday, Georgia lawmakers attended the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues annual breakfast, sat for Gov. Nathan Deal’s State of the State address and plowed into budget hearings.

And that was merely Day 3 of the 2014 Georgia General Assembly session. Gov. Deal jokes that he’s going to sound like a broken record when he says his top goal is making sure Georgia is the best place to do business (which, by the way, he reached last year, according to Site Selection magazine).

Your GPB News Now correspondent worries she’ll suffer the same fate if she mentions once again that this may be the fastest legislative session in three decades.

Not unlike the State of the Union address the U.S. president gives each year to a joint session of Congress, the State of the State address is marked by pageantry and tradition. It takes place in the House chamber and includes the MEMBERS OF THE Georgia Supreme Court, who attend in their black judicial robes. This being an election year, the event also contained a few flourishes to remind folks who’s been in charge the past four years.

For example, the legislators who were chosen to escort Deal into the chamber all hail from communities that have seen recent job announcements (which House Speaker David Ralston recited in some detail.)

And Deal even dipped into the traditional rhetoric for such a speech.

“Let me proudly say as is normally stated on the opening lines of a State of the State address: ‘The State of our State is excellent, and it is a great day in Georgia’,” he said.

Don’t Forget To Vote Nov. 4

The speech contained any number of facts and figures. But the 30-minute talk can be boiled down to one line: Deal has been investing in education and he’s running for re-election.

He boasted that during his administration, funding for education has increased by more than $930 million. And his budget proposal for next year includes $8 billion for K-12 education alone. He said it’s the largest single-year increase in K-12 education in five years.

That’s despite portraying himself as a fiscal conservative. He chided other states that raised taxes during the Recession, and proudly crowed, “But not Georgia!”

Deal has made a point of pursuing what’s called zero-based budgeting. That’s where you throw out all assumptions from the year before and you must justify every penny you spend. And because of that, he’s steadily reduced the size of government.

“My approach as governor has been to do in the hard times, what is almost impossible for government to do in the good times; that is, make state government programs leaner and more efficient and concentrate scarce resources on those areas that will produce the best and most long lasting results,” he told the joint session. “While fighting to hold the line on K-12 education, we have reduced the number of state employees by 12,750 from 5 years ago, which is a drop of 16.5 percent.”

If there’s any question Deal deems himself the education governor, consider this: he choked up once again when describing his wife Sandra’s feat of reading to children in every school district in the state last year. Sure this is a political piece, but they've been married for more than 40 years so it's worth noting.

Dems Say Too Little, Too Late

The Democrats can’t deny Deal is devoting more money to education. But when asked if the funding was merely an election year ploy, state Senator Jason Carter, who gave the Democratic response, without hesitation said yes. (More on the specifics of the education boost below).

Carter, a Decatur Democrat who’s challenging Deal for Governor, questioned how Deal could call these Georgia's "glory years" when there are 9,000 fewer teachers across the state, resulting in overcrowded classrooms. He pointed out that while Deal hasn’t raised taxes, local districts have been forced to do so to keep schools open. He proposed creating a separate school budget that would act as a trust fund.

He also chastised Deal for bragging about Site Selection magazine naming Georgia the No. 1 place to do business even as he presided over a drop in technical college enrollment.

“Gov. Deal says Georgia today is at the pinnacle. He’s bursting with pride that a magazine has rated Georgia as the best place to do business,” Carter said. “You can’t tell that to 363,000 Georgians who are still looking for work. Our state ranks 40th in the nation for the unemployment rate. That’s not a pinnacle.”

He also lambasted Deal for not mentioning "the middle class" in any of his State of the State addresses. He called it a “moral failure” that one out of every four kids in Georgia is living in poverty.

Deal is facing opposition on education from two fronts. State School Superintendent John Barge is challenging him for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Experts don’t dispute his education figures. But they say Deal’s increased funding for education for the most part merely matches the higher costs of growing enrollment. For 2015, Deal wants to add $315 million on top of enrollment growth, but Alan Essig with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute says that doesn’t erase the $1 billion cut to education over the past decade.

Even other Republicans are saying it’s time to invest much more in education. At an education policy event last week, Senator Lindsey Tippins of Marietta said after all the cuts, if the state doesn’t pour more money into education, schools “will starve.” He and Rep. Brooks Coleman of Duluth said they were “shocked” when they learned the number of furlough days many Georgia schools are seeing.

Now For Some Non-Education, Non-Election News

Deal pledged an additional $35 million in next year’s budget to defray costs of the deepening of the Savannah Harbor. And he also said that dredging will begin this year. The project would allow the port to accommodate larger cargo ships that will be coming from the Panama Canal.

“We have studied and planned long enough. It is time to start moving dirt,” he said.

As we noted, budget hearings are underway. Lawmakers are taking up the amended 2014 budget first. Each year, the legislature has to revise the budget they passed the previous year to account for increases in school enrollment and other changes. They’ll do that first, then move onto the budget for the new year.

As for the 2015 budget, Deal has proposed spending $20.8 billion to fund the state’s operations. And now for something totally different: Georgia has a surplus that tops $900 million. And the most notable expenditure in the spending plan for next year is the $547 million boost to education funds.

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