Capitol Update Week 9 – Budget, Insurance, Zero-Based Next

This week the House passed two key pieces of legislation. House Bill 47, that I co-signed, provides Georgians an option to purchase health insurance plans across state lines by allowing insurance companies licensed in Georgia to sell accident and health insurance policies that are approved for sale in other states.  This simple change would create a more open insurance market with greater competition, ultimately resulting in less expensive health insurance options for Georgians.

The other key bill passed this week was House Bill 78, the Fiscal Year 2012 state budget.  The 2012 Budget totals $18.1 billion and will direct spending from July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012.  While state funds increased 2 percent as a result of improving economic conditions, total spending for FY 2012 decreased by over 4 percent due to expiring federal stimulus funds.  Our per capita spending, not adjusted for inflation, is below 2001 budget levels. We achieved these reductions by cutting spending an average of 7 percent in most state agencies and departments. Within the limited budget, however, we were able to provide some needed improvements that have statewide impact.

Using lottery funds, the House adjusted the Georgia Pre-K program so that it remains financially stable.  Originally, the bi-partisan plan for preserving Pre-K would have reduced the program from six hours of daily instruction to just four hours of daily instruction. However, after consulting pre-K teachers and providers, a new decision was reached. Under this new plan, as implemented by HB 78, Georgia Pre-K will remain a full day, six hour instruction program.  This ensures full nutritional and educational opportunities for 86,000 children next year.

Instead of reducing the number of daily hours, the new Pre-K plan will reduce the Pre-K year from 180 days to 160 days.  Additionally, two more students will be added to each Pre-K class, moving the class size from 20 to 22.  Since all Georgia Pre-K classes have a paraprofessional in the room, the student to teacher ratio will max out at 11 to 1. Further, Pre-K providers will receive 94 percent of the operating funds they currently receive, and Pre-K teachers will receive 90 percent of their current salaries.

Other noteworthy portions of the FY 2012 budget include restored Medicaid funding that allows low-income Georgians access to vision, dental, and podiatry services. We also restored funding for Alzheimer’s Respite, Meals on Wheels, and Independent Care Waivers that serve aged, blind, and disabled Georgians.  This budget also includes more than $19 million for economic development projects that will improve roads, bridges, and airports throughout the state as well as help bring jobs to out of work Georgians.

Next week our daily calendar is greatly expanded with 24 bills on the floor for consideration on Monday and a lengthy calendar expected for Crossover Day on Wednesday – Day 30.

As the end of session draws near, I encourage you to contact me with any comments or questions you have about the legislation being considered at the state capitol.  You can reach me at my Capitol office at 404-656-7859 or on my cell at 404-966-5804 or via email at brett.harrell@house.ga.gov.