ATLANTA — Increased spending for teachers, job training, harbor deepening and crime reduction topped Gov. Nathan Deal’s agenda laid out Wednesday in his election-year edition of the State of the State Address.
The budget, if approved by the Legislature, would also include $5 million to equip Georgia Regents University’s new cancer center, for which ground has not yet been broken. Completion of that research facility was a priority featured in last year’s speech because it addresses a major killer of Georgians and has the potential to make the university a nationally prominent research center.
Deal is also seeking $290,000 to replace the antenna at GRU’s WACG-FM (90.7) public-broadcasting station. Another $260,000 would match federal funds to renovate the National Guard’s Augusta Readiness Center.
He started the speech with a promise to begin work on deepening the Savannah River shipping channel to accommodate bigger freighters. He is recommending $35 million for it while expressing impatience with the federal government for the delay in its share of the project’s funds.
“I intend to start dredging on that project this year,” he said, recalling that Congress first considered it in 1999, when Deal was in the U.S. House. “We have studied and planned long enough. It’s time to start moving dirt.”
Port officials expect Congress to give the go-ahead soon to allow the project to begin with the state funds already appropriated even before the federal government matches the money.
Much of the speech was devoted to education. Although one teacher organization praised him, a primary opponent blasted him for spending too much while his Democratic opponent said he didn’t allocate enough.
The discussion of education spending is clear recognition that his challengers have already made it a campaign issue, including Superintendent of Schools John Barge.
Deal noted that state education spending has already increased $930 million during his term while other parts of state government have taken cuts in the wake of a 19 percent decline in tax collections below the pre-recession peak.
Nearly 82 cents of every dollar in new spending during his term has gone toward education, and funding based on the Quality Basic Education formula has risen 13 percent in that time.
The governor is recommending another $579 million boost in education spending in next year’s budget.
“My proposal represents the largest single increase in K-12 funding in seven years,” he said.
He predicted that would pay for a teacher raise and ensure that all schools can operate a full 180-day calendar year.
Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, said the governor isn’t putting in enough to do all of that.
“Despite what you just heard, the results have been devastating for our education system,” said Carter, who hopes to unseat Deal.
He said underfunding of education has prompted 38 local boards of education to raise taxes while most districts have increased class sizes and shortened their school year.
“Governor Deal will say repeatedly – as he said today – that he hasn’t raised taxes. But look at your property-tax bill and tell me if you think that’s true,” Carter said. “His cuts in education have become local tax increases. It’s a shell game.”
Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who is facing Deal in the GOP primary, issued a statement critical of the governor from the other direction.
“Nathan’s one-time, $579 million education spending increase is a page from his book of his former Washington life – throwing money at a problem with no real intention of fixing it,” Pennington
Meanwhile, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, Calvine Rollins, was pleased.
“He was saying something we wanted to hear,” she said. “…We’re happy with what he’s done this year.”
The governor also announced he wants to expand the career courses that qualify for full scholarships to technical colleges and additional funds to help rural school systems overcome property-tax losses because of land conservation.
He set a goal of reducing the rate at which convicted felons commit new offenses by 25 percent by helping them find jobs and adjust to life after prison. That would result in 1,400 fewer crimes, he said.
One initiative that isn’t part of the governor’s agenda is expanding eligibility for Medicaid. The federal health-reform law known as Obamacare has already added $1,000 in costs for every Georgia taxpayer, he said, and expanding Medicaid would add more than $600 more.
“We will not allow ourselves to be coerced into expansion. I’m prepared to fight any intrusion into our rights as a state,” he said, triggering a standing ovation from conservative lawmakers.
Lobbyists for hospitals and patient support organizations took the comment in stride as a reflection of the political reality in the state. But they remain determined to continue pushing him to change his mind, arguing that federal taxes paid by Georgians are going to other states that have expanded Medicaid.
“We are paying for this to happen. We are just not having it happen here – yet,” said Linda Lowe, a consumer-health advocate.