Hamrick Reports from the Capitol

By Bill Hamrick

As legislators, we are faced with difficult decisions everyday. During the past couple of sessions, these tough choices have mostly been financial. Facing huge revenue gaps, we’ve had to reduce and sometimes cut government programs. But with this pain, comes an opportunity that we must not overlook. Now is the time to get the size of government under control. By increasing efficiency and reducing wasteful spending, we can ensure that each tax dollar spent is only used for essential programs.

The Senate passed the Taxpayer Protection Act of 2011 this week, which proposes a Constitutional Amendment that would limit growth in state Government. The resolution had overwhelming bi-partisan support. You have a right to say ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to state spending. If approved, the resolution will restrict the state from spending any money in excess of the previous year budget, adjusted for inflation and population. Any additional revenue beyond the spending limitations would be required to go into the Rainy Day fund until it reaches a point of 15 percent of the previous year spending. Once the rainy day fund is at 15 percent, we will reduce debts and start making cuts to the state income tax. If it is approved by the House of Representatives and Gov. Deal, the Constitutional Amendment will be on the next General Election ballot in 2012

We passed the amended FY 2011 budget, which lays out the state’s spending plan through the rest of the fiscal year ending June 30. The main strategy in balancing this budget was to share reductions between the Amended FY 2011 budget and the FY 2012 budget. This will ensure that vital programs aren’t completely cut in either year, but will face a smaller budget for both years. We are creating a baseline that we can grow from in the future.

Even though January was our eighth straight month of revenue growth, we had to be cautious because we are still facing big revenue gaps from over a year of low collections. The shortfall totaled $400 million in the amended budget. K-12 enrollment growth and less-than-anticipated federal matching for Medicaid expenses were the biggest contributors to the shortfall. We also began paying our settlement with the Department of Justice for mental health improvements in the state. The gap was filled with an average of 4 percent cuts to all agencies. Education, because it’s a firm priority in Georgia, was not hit as hard. The final amended budget totaled $18 billion.

In addition to producing a balanced spending plan for the state, another of our top priorities this session is to overhaul the HOPE scholarship program to ensure its sustainability for future generations.  If we do nothing, HOPE will be unable to meet its obligations in just two years.  The governor introduced legislation this week that maintains the current merit-based scholarship for students with a 3.0 GPA, but adjusts the amount annually based on lottery revenues. Providing more than $5 billion to more than 1.2 million students, this program is one of the most generous in the nation and continues to be a model for other states.

The bill also creates the Zell Miller Scholarship program to reward Georgia’s best and brightest students with full tuition coverage. It will be awarded to students with a 3.7 GPA or higher and who received at least a 1200 SAT score or at least a 26 ACT score.

The Pre-K program is a successful universal program to help ready 4-year-olds for school. Under the proposed legislation, 5,000 slots are added to address the lengthy waiting list. $4.2 million is included to increase quality for the programs. We’re proposing a move from a six hour day to a four hour day but by reducing time for routines, rest and meals, the decrease in instructional time will be minimized. Georgia’s program is one of the largest and most comprehensive Pre-K programs in the nation and it continues to be a model for other states. The tough choices we have to make are balanced by increasing efficiency.

Sen. Bill Hamrick serves as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He represents the 30th Senate District which includes portions of Carroll, Douglas, and Paulding counties.  He may be reached at 404.656.0036 or via e-mail at bill.hamrick@senate.ga.gov.

For Immediate Release:
February 25, 2011
For Information Contact:
Kallarin Richards, Deputy Director
Katie Wright, Communications Manager