The first week of the 2015 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly concluded Jan. 15 and was highlighted by the State of the State Address delivered Jan. 14 by Gov. Nathan Deal to a joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives. I had the honor of presenting the Democratic response to the Governor’s message (see below).
Following the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday on Monday, Jan. 19, the Senate and House and Appropriations Committees will hold hearings and begin work on the proposed budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2015 and the annual budget for fiscal year 2016. The full General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene Jan. 26 for the fifth legislative day of the session.
Throughout the legislative session, I hope you will contact me with your views on the issues being addressed at the Capitol, or whenever I can be of service to you.
State Senator, District 41
Governor outlines legislative priorities; Sen. Henson delivers Democratic response to ‘State of the State’
In his annual “State of the State” address to the General Assembly, Gov. Nathan Deal spoke in favor of an additional financial investment to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure, as recommended by a special study committee.
While the Governor recommended increase spending on transportation, he did not come out in support of a specific plan to generate revenue for the additional spending. The study committee had estimated the need for an addition of $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually to maintain the current road system.
On education, Gov. Deal asked lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment to establish an “Opportunity School District,” in which the state would take over the operation of individual failing schools. He has also appointed an Education Reform Commission for the purpose of overhauling the state’s Quality Basic Education funding formula for local school systems.
The Governor continued his call for criminal justice reforms and proposed combining the supervision functions of three state agencies — the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections — into a new Department of Community Supervision.
Gov. Deal expressed support for decriminalizing and controlling the use of cannabis oil for the medical treatment of certain conditions, including childhood seizures. He said he does not support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use and opposes allowing marijuana to be grown or sold in the state.
Georgia Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson delivered the Democratic response to Governor Nathan Deal’s State of the State Speech. Watch the video here.
Good evening my fellow Georgians. I am Senator Steve Henson, Leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Just a few moments ago we heard Governor Nathan Deal talk about the current state of Georgia. In his remarks he told us Georgia was strong and it is time for our annual checkup. He talked about economic growth and the creation of thousands of new jobs each month. What we know is that Georgia is strong because our people are strong. You define our state-by your hard work, commitment to your families and neighbors, your willingness to sacrifice so that your children can have a chance to forge their own path. I’ve seen those values in every corner of our state. From our small towns to our big cities. From our beaches to the mountains. From our farms to our city centers. We’ve always prided ourselves on the fact that anyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, can work hard to make whatever they want of their life.
But in the last decade, we’ve seen that our hard-working families aren’t getting ahead. In fact, many are having difficulty paying their bills. Governor Deal tells us Georgia is the best place to do business and he told us that under his administration 319,000 new jobs were created in his first term. Governor Deal told us that he has a renewed vision for the state and a new mandate for Georgia. But you and I know that when we sit down at our dinner table each night, Georgia families aren’t talking about Georgia being a great place to do business. Instead many are wondering how they will ever pay off credit cards, pay for college or save for retirement.
Yes, the worst of the Great Recession appears to be behind us. Certainly, the national unemployment reflects our climb up out of a dark financial time for this country. We’ve recovered from a national unemployment rate of 10% unemployment in October 2009, to this month’s low of 5.6 percent. Our country is moving in the right financial direction. Banks have loosened the strings on lending and we are seeing an uptick in commerce and business. But in Georgia, the unemployment rate for November was 7.2% – one of the worst in the nation. In fact, in the months leading into November, Georgia had THE worst unemployment rate in the country and we are currently only second to Mississippi. Worse, in Chattahoochee County, the unemployment rate is 14.4; in Telfair County it’s 13.3 and in Macon County it’s 12%. These rates are double the national unemployment rate. While the Governor touts 319,000 new jobs, the fact is the recession hit workers in mid-wage industries hardest and they are faring the worst in the recovery. Georgia’s mid-wage industries comprised 52 percent of private sector job losses during the Great Recession from 2007 to 2010, but only 15 percent of gains during the recovery from 2010 to 2013. Georgia’s private sector had about 138,100 fewer jobs in mid-wage industries in 2013 than it did in 2007, before the recession began.
Georgians want this to be the best state to do business, but we also want it to be the best place to raise a family, send our children to school, get a job that pays well and save for retirement. We want it to be the state with the safest communities. The Governor paints us a pretty picture, but we know that many families are not better off than they were four years ago. We know that if our children graduate from college, many are saddled with student loans they may never be able to pay off. And if his new vision looks anything like the past 10 years, then our families will continue to struggle. The hard truth is that Georgia isn’t even average — not in unemployment, not in education and not in health care. Our state falls into the bottom level in nearly every measured category.
Is below average the best we can do in Georgia? Do we want to rank near the bottom in nearly every measurable category? Democrats believe we can do much better. The Democratic Caucus members that I represent come from all over the state – from the piney woods of the south, to the rolling hills of middle Georgia to the working class neighborhoods of Atlanta. After more than a decade of overwhelming single-party majority in the General Assembly, this state may have escaped near disaster for our state’s working families, students, and small businesses. But even with claims of jobs creation, our state remains at the bottom of the nation in unemployment figures and many of the jobs created don’t pay well enough to support a family. We can and must do better for Georgians. Democrats are offering up an entire package of legislation aimed at working families — increasing the minimum wage, restoring the Georgia Low Income Tax Credit, also a measure that requires new companies that take tax credits are required to hire Georgia employees, and a measure the properly qualifies employees for salary and benefits. Democrats will fight to raise the standard of living in this state by joining the 42 states with a wage that meets or exceeds the federal minimum. A hike in the minimum wage will raise the income for nearly a million workers, create almost 3,000 new jobs, add $812 million to the state’s economy and assist local businesses with personnel costs through reduced employee turnover.
Education is a core tenant to the economic prosperity of families and businesses alike. The way we create a path to employment – education – means ensuring that our public schools and technical colleges are fully funded. The Governor talked about forming an Education Reform Commission to study questions regarding our education system and talked about a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to take control of failing schools. But over the last decade deep cuts in education funding and the constant changes to state’s curriculum have left teachers, parents and students demoralized. Since 2003, the Republican administration has overseen 8 billion dollars in cuts to our schools – increasing classroom sizes, removing latitude for local school systems and overlooking pay increases for our teachers. Band-Aide fixes to the HOPE Scholarship and deep cuts to education are exacting a toll on the employment picture of the state, too. In a report released this past month, 80 job recruiters told state officials that they have to put out a nationwide search to fill 66% of its high skill jobs.
This race to the bottom has to end and Democrats stand ready to offer solutions. We will insist that our public and higher education systems are fully funded and that HOPE scholarship and grant programs can once again ensure all qualified students receive the funding they need to achieve a college degree. We know it is wrong not to prepare Georgians for good paying jobs. Democratic legislation was offered this week to require the Legislature to fully fund the Quality Basic Education Act. We are also concerned that we are underfunding the higher education system. As a stop gap measure, we have introduced a “Pay it Forward” plan that would instruct the University System of Georgia to develop a pilot program that would allow in-state students to forego paying tuition and instead sign a contract to pay a certain percentage of their income back to the state for a specified term. Democrats will continue to work to restore HOPE so that it fully funds tuition for qualifying Georgia students. We have legislation that would allow the Technical Colleges to allow previous work experience to serve as course credits.
This past month a joint study committee released its findings on Georgia’s infrastructure system – our roads and bridges – are in desperate need of improvement. Today we see a system with aging bridges and barely enough money to pave our roads. Since this problem has been known for a number of years, we are disappointed the Governor did not give a more specific approach for his solution. Today, the Governor failed to address a number of issues that impact nearly every Georgian. He did not address access to affordable health care. Nor did he address the closings of many rural hospitals and helping the uninsured. For most Georgians, insurance and health care are prominent aspects of the family budget.
Democrats have put together a legislative package designed to address many of the concerns of Georgia’s working families. We are willing to work with the majority to find common ground in order to make the lives of real Georgians easier. We’ve always believed in a better way for Georgia’s families and always will. Democrats’ legislative package produces concrete solutions proven to help middle class families and small businesses. We have 50 bills drafted this month to address health care, to address public education and to advance working families.
Our package will also allow the people to gain trust in how the business of this state is handled by elected officials through an independently operated ethics commission. Democrats want to end the taint of scandal that has surrounded our state for too long, open the process to the people and restore confidence in their government. Making the state a great place to do business and a great place for working families will be a priority for Democrats.
Our President said, “The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time.” Democrats stand ready to help build the communities of our dreams. This fight is for all Georgians. Only with your involvement can we move Georgia forward. Please engage in the process: send us letters, call our offices, write us e-mails and visit us at the Capitol or in the district. I promise we will listen. This is our beloved state. These are our communities. Together we stand or fall.
This new term, this new vision, and this new mandate should be about the people of Georgia. Thank you and good night.