Deal blamed poor economic conditions for much of the state’s challenges during his first three years in office and used his speech to make the case that his business-friendly approach and emphasis on job creation had helped improve Georgia’s economy.
“When I took office, we still had revenue numbers that made across-the-board budget cuts a necessity,” Deal said in his speech to lawmakers. “Now, with your help, we have grown our year-over-year revenues for each quarter that I have been governor without raising taxes.”
Deal unveiled key details of his proposed $42.3 billion combined spending plan for the fiscal year beginning in July, a 3 percent increase over the current year. Chief among them was a proposed $547 million increase in state education funding to address one of the most pressing issues facing state officials heading into an election year. A large portion of the funds is required to keep up with student enrollments, with about $314 million in new funds for public school systems that have been hit hard in the years since the recession.
A report last year found the General Assembly had provided at least $1 billion less to schools each year for the past five years than was calculated under the state’s complicated and controversial funding formula. A related survey found at least 55 percent of school districts were not meeting the state minimum of 180 instructional days because of budget constraints.
Deal said he was proposing almost 70 percent of new state revenues be dedicated toward education in an effort to restore some of those funds, calling it the “largest single year increase in K-12 funding in seven years” with total funding nearly $8 billion. He said the additional money would be used to “restore instructional days, eliminate teacher furloughs and increase teacher salaries,” although how the money will be spent is ultimately a local decision so it’s unknown how many teachers across the state will benefit.
The proposal was welcomed by teachers’ groups with a note of caution. “It is a step in the right direction for public education,” said Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
“The devil, as they say, is in the details,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “Before we get too enthusiastic, we want to see the actual budget documents and allotments to school districts.”
While the governor received a warm reception from a Republican-dominated General Assembly, his speech drew a sharp rebuke from state Sen. Jason Carter, a Democrat who is seeking to challenge Deal in the November election. Carter, who offered the Democrats’ response to the State of the State, criticized Deal for forgetting about the middle class in favor of big business.
“Today in Georgia, if you have a big company, with a direct line to the governor’s office, you get what you need,” Carter said. “Not once, in four speeches, has he mentioned the middle class. For this governor, the middle class just isn’t on his radar screen.”
In contrast to Deal’s picture of an improving Georgia economy, Carter argued the average Georgia family makes $6,000 less, adjusted for inflation, than 10 years ago and that state education cuts have forced local officials to raise property taxes.
“The single biggest failure of Georgia’s current leadership, and the biggest drain on our economy, is the dismantling of our education system,” Carter said. “It’s not conservative to cut funding for education at the state level, and then watch property taxes go up.”
Deal anticipated the criticism from Democrats and offered in his speech what will surely become a frequent line on the campaign trail: “Their solutions may sound appealing on the surface, but will ultimately require us to raise taxes on all Georgians.”
Meanwhile, one of Deal’s Republican primary challengers questioned the governor’s commitment to fiscal conservatism. Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who is running on a platform of limited government and spending cuts, said the governor’s proposed budget marked another year of increased state spending.
“While the federal government is learning how to cut spending, Nathan Deal is proposing increased spending for the fourth straight year for state government,” Pennington said in a statement. “If his past is representative of his future, Nathan will continue to cover the spending increases with tax increases that hurt Georgia families and businesses.”
In perhaps an effort to sideline that argument, Deal noted in his speech the elimination of state programs and consolidation of others during his administration. He also said the number of state employees has been reduced by 12,570 from five years ago, a drop of 16.5 percent.