John Deffenbaugh

Article submitted Sunday, Feb. 19

My colleagues and I returned to the State Capitol and went back to work on Tuesday, February 14 for our sixth week of the 2017 legislative session. By the end of week six, we completed legislative day 20, meaning we reached the half-way mark of the session. We have 20 legislative days remaining to complete our business, and "Crossover Day" is rapidly approaching. With that in mind, the House passed several key bills each legislative day this week, including one of the General Assembly’s most important pieces of legislation of this session: House Bill 44, the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY 2018) state budget.

Each year, the General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget, and on Friday, the House fulfilled this constitutional duty by passing House Bill 44, the Fiscal Year 2018 budget that will serve as our state’s spending guide from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. The FY 2018 budget is set by a revenue estimate of $24.9 billion, an increase of $1.25 billion, or 5.3 percent, over the FY 2017 budget, making it the largest budget in our state’s history.

With this record setting revenue, we are able to fund top House initiatives in the FY 2018 budget. Much like in years past, the bulk our funding, $780.2 million in HB 44, is budgeted for education to ensure that each of the nearly 1.74 million full-time equivalent students in the state, as well as Georgia’s instrumental teachers, administrators, faculty and staff, have access to the educational resources they need to thrive. First and foremost, the FY 2018 budget allocates $162 million to provide Georgia’s dedicated teachers with a 2 percent merit pay increase incorporated into the salary schedule to provide raises to more than 126,000 teachers, as well as a 2 percent salary increase for bus drivers and school nutrition personnel. The FY 2018 budget also includes $1.6 million for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) trainers and school climate specialists to help reduce disciplinary incidents and promote school safety. In addition, the budget provides $2.7 million in new and existing funds to provide one AP STEM exam for every student taking an AP STEM course in the state as a way to encourage participation in AP STEM courses. Furthermore, the FY 2018 budget includes $4.05 million to fund additional school counselors for all school systems as well as $445,145 for a competitive grant program available to school systems that have a large military population to fund counselor positions to provide additional support to students of military families. Finally, HB 44 includes $1.5 million for the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement for a grant program to provide low performing high schools with a certified school counselor-graduation specialist. This competitive grant program would give priority to those high schools on the state’s chronically failing schools list. These budget allocations provide Georgia’s learners, as well as our teachers, with quality educational resources, and the House’s appropriation for education in the FY 2018 budget is ultimately an investment in our state’s future.

Initiatives that promote the well-being and mental health of all Georgians are vital, and another significant budgetary focus in the House was ensuring that our state funds programs that support our citizens in these aspects. For that reason, HB 44 includes funding for several key services under the Department of Human Resources. The FY 2018 budget supports critical programs aiding over 19,000 young people in the foster care system statewide through the inclusion of $10.7 million for a $10 per diem rate increase for foster parents and $14.9 million for relative foster parents caring for and raising our state’s foster children. Moreover, HB 44 provides $25.8 million for a 19 percent salary increase for child welfare services caseworkers, $2.8 million for 80 new positions in the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) to provide support services for foster parents, $500,000 to expand the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) to advocate on behalf of our children and $1.5 million for a $5 hourly rate increase for Special Assistant Attorneys General (SAAGs) who support child welfare cases. Additionally, the FY 2018 budget includes $6 million for the creation of a Behavioral Health Crisis Center which would address emergency crisis needs for individuals struggling with mental illnesses by providing 24/ 7 walk-in services and would offer an alternative to expensive hospital care for patients experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. Other important additions include $500,000 for the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency to match federal funds to continue providing scholarships for students with developmental disabilities and $2 million for Georgia Alzheimer’s Project to promote early detection and treatment to provide early detection and treatment of this devastating disease. No matter the age, from the youngest citizen to our aging population, we must ensure that adequately funded programs are in place to support all Georgians.

Allocating funds for our military communities and service members was another House priority for the 2018 fiscal year budget. Our veterans fought to protect the freedoms we all benefit from, and our active-duty military personnel continue this fight today, and it is only fitting that we respect and care for those who made and continue to make great sacrifices for our state and country. In addition providing support to our military families by funding additional school counselors to school systems serving large military communities, the HB 44 also designates $358,996 for four veteran benefits training officers who would work with the Veterans Accountability Court to serve those who have entered the criminal justice system upon returning home from combat and war, along with $137,650 for a women veterans coordinator position in an effort to recognize the unique challenges and needs facing our female veterans. An increased allocation of $359,437 is also included to fully fund the actuarially determined employer contribution for the Georgia Military Pension Fund to continue fiscal soundness and sustainability. In addition, HB 44 would fund the establishment of the Military Family Support Center in Marietta, a commissary that would sell discounted groceries and household goods to active-duty and retired military personnel and their families. Over 400,000 authorized users per year in our state would be eligible to take advantage of the benefits this center would provide, and I’m proud to support the inclusion of these funds in our budget to benefit our veterans and active-duty military personnel.

Now that we have passed the annual budget and are halfway through the 2017 legislative session, we will continue to vote on many more important bills each legislative day under the Gold Dome through the remainder of the session. During this time, I hope that you will contact me with your ideas and opinions so that I can apply your thoughts to my work throughout these remaining 20 legislative days. If you have questions or concerns regarding these bills or any other pieces of legislation, I encourage you to contact me. As your state representative, it is my responsibility to represent your thoughts and opinions at the State Capitol. You are always welcome and encouraged to visit my capitol office in Atlanta. My capitol office phone number is 404-656-02026, and my email address is john.deffenbaugh@house.ga.gov.

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.