By Tia Lynn Ivey
Georgia Senator Burt Jones and House Representative Dave Belton spoke at the annual Legislative Forum, facilitated by the Morgan County Family Connection, to inform local elected officials and community members about the most important priorities to be addressed in the upcoming state legislative session.
The top three issues for Georgia lawmakers, according to Belton and Jones, will be education reform, criminal justice reform, and healthcare reform.
According to Belton, the top priority of the Georgia Legislature this year will be education, which comprises 53 percent of the state’s annual budget.
“The big issue we are going to be tackling this year is education, that will be our number one issue,” said Belton, who said lawmakers will address the funding mechanisms for schools. “We have got to empower teachers…there are 1.7 million children in our state and that number is going up every year, but the number of teachers is going down…this is a crisis that is coming and we need to address it.” Belton noted several solutions aimed at empowering teachers, including establishing planning time for them, leaving curriculum unchanged for six years, and reducing the number of tests given each year.
Senator Jones vowed to continue working toward finding new ways to improve the “chronically failing” schools throughout the state, in light of the fact that Amendment 1, which sought to give the executive branch control over failing schools, was defeated on the ballot in November.
“I understand both sides of that,” said Jones. “It roused the emotions of the general public. It was soundly defeated at the polls by the people and that message was heard, but it still doesn’t change the fact that we still have a lot of struggling schools in the state and we have to address that.”
Jones also pledged to fight rising costs of higher education institutions and increase funding to PRE-K programs across the state.
Jones praised Governor Nathan Deal for declining the expansion of Medicaid since the incoming presidential administration of Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “I think the governor made a wise decision on that,” said Jones, who pledged to focus on helping struggling hospitals across the state by providing tax credits for citizens who donate to their local hospitals.
Jones maintained the economic development is the key to combatting poverty within the state of Georgia.
“Economic development is the number one. When people don’t have jobs to seek, particularly in small communities throughout Georgia, it’s hard to succeed. The Trump administration had success because they’ve promised to return job lost to overseas manufacturers. I am very hopeful that Mr. Trump, if he does at least half of what he has promised to do, will give the economy a shot in the arm and incentivize businesses to stay in the country.”
Belton focused on the gains the State of Georgia has already made in recent years.
“In general, things are going really, really well in Georgia. We have the best criminal justice system in America. For the fourth year in a row, we are the best state in the nation to do business with. We added 550,000 jobs last year…Job growth in Georgia is almost doubling the national average and we are not the 8th largest state in the nation,” said Belton. “Our rainy day fund has reached $2 billion dollars, up from $103 million at the height of the recession…Georgia is the only state in the nation whose revenues are going up. We have a lot of good things going for us right now.”