Gov. Deal outlines agenda for lawmakers

Associated Pres
ATLANTA (AP) - Gov. Nathan Deal outlined his agenda Tuesday for Georgia lawmakers, calling for a boost in education funding, cheaper ways to treat drug addicts and tax breaks that he said would stimulate the economy.
The Republican governor described Georgia's situation as "strong" in his annual State of the State address, now that tax revenues are rebounding following a bruising recession that prompted massive cuts in state spending. Nearly 10 percent of workers remain unemployed, despite signs of a gradual recovery in the economy.
He outlined proposals contained in a spending plan that he will release Wednesday.
"With a sluggish global economy we still face challenges, but we are beginning to see indications that things are stabilizing," Deal said.
Among his top goals is increasing funding for beleaguered school systems repeatedly hit with funding cuts over the last few years.
"Our schools are the front line in our effort to create prosperity," Deal said. "It is here that we make our most strategic investment in the future."
The governor proposed boosting state spending by roughly $147 million for the K-12 system and $111 million for higher education. He also proposed roughly $60 million in funding to increase pay for teachers and to fund school nurses, two groups that took big financial hits during the recession. He proposed spending nearly $2 million on a program that would use mentors to help students read on their grade level by third grade.
Deal repeated an earlier promise to increase the school calendar by 10 days for children enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten classes, restoring half of the days he cut last year to help the program stay afloat. The governor will help pay for the extra days by cutting slots for 2,000 pre-k students.
The governor also asked lawmakers to support an overhaul of the state's tax code that he said would improve the business climate and attract jobs. He repeated a call to eliminate taxes on the energy used by manufacturers and the construction materials used to build what Deal called "regionally significant" projects. He also supported retooling existing tax credits so they benefit smaller businesses.
Besides increasing funding for the education system, Deal asked lawmakers to overhaul the criminal justice system as part of an effort to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and save the state money.
He asked state lawmakers to spend more than $16 million to create substance abuse treatment centers. That funding would also support specialized courts that offer troubled addicts and veterans an opportunity to stay out of prison if they seek treatment. Deal's budget will include $35 million to pay for new beds in the prison system for those offenders who are deemed a threat to public safety.
"We must make this investment," Deal said. "If we fail to treat the addict's drug addiction, we haven't taken the first step in breaking the cycle of crime - a cycle that destroys lives and wastes taxpayer resources."
Sen. Steve Henson, the Democratic Senate leader, said his caucus generally supported Deal's goals, but he still wanted to know where the Republican governor would find the money for his proposals. By law, Georgia must have a balanced budget. Increasing funding for one program can require cutting spending on another.
Democrats want to carefully examine new tax breaks for businesses since they do not believe that existing tax breaks have created many jobs, Henson said.
"I wanted to see where he was going to get the money to do each of the things he said," Henson said in an interview. "He didn't say where he was cutting."
Deal started Tuesday by unveiling his economic goals to business leaders. He urged them to support regional transportation tax referenda that are scheduled for the July ballot. He said the infrastructure projects that would be funded by the taxpayers are "imperative" to the state's economy.
"If the slate of projects in your region provides value, I want to ask you to vote and help get the word out to your friends and family," Deal said in his morning remarks.
The governor said Tuesday that his budget plan would also:
  • Provide almost $9 million to charter schools at risk of losing half their funding after a recent ruling from Georgia's Supreme Court;
  • Create 400 new residency slots for new doctors;
  • Earmark $47 million in bonding to deepen the Port of Savannah so it is accessible to larger cargo ships;
  • Offer local communities $46 million to partially fund the cost of planning and building reservoirs and other water-storage projects.
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