State Rep. Trey Kelley (16th District) and State Sen. Bill Heath (37th District) provide the following columns on a weekly basis for media outlets. We have elected to publish them weekly through the legislative session as part of the Standard Journal’s coverage of state house issues. - KM

Friends,

Tuesday, February 16 marked the beginning of our sixth week of the 2016 legislative session. With “Crossover Day” rapidly approaching, we are passing crucial pieces of legislation each day that we are in session. Last week we passed the one piece of legislation we are Constitutionally required to do, our budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In addition to the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget the House passed several other measures meant to empower individuals and improve the lives of Georgians.

The General Assembly has one constitutional obligation each year: to pass a balanced state budget. This budget will serve as a spending guide for the state beginning July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. The FY2017 budget comes in at $23.7 billion, an amount when adjusted for per capital inflation is 8 percent less than the 2008 budget. In the FY17 Budget the House was able to secure funding for several of its priorities, including: education, health care, and economic development funds.

Time and time again politicians tell you that education is their top priority. Through the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget the Republican led House has put our money where our mouth is. In this year’s budget more than half of all total appropriated funds are devoted to education. As a result of revenue increases, the FY2017 includes a $300 million appropriation for K-12 education for local school boards to give salary increases, eliminate furlough days or increase instruction days for education. The House version of FY2017 also includes $5.1 million for a 3 percent pay raise to teachers in Agriculture Education and Tech/Career Education programs, school bus drivers, lunchroom workers, nurses, and Regional Education Service Agency (RESA) employees. The budget provides an additional $28.6 million in funding for Pre-K teachers for salary increases up to three percent, as well as increasing salaries for assistant teachers. During his State of the State address, Governor Deal noted that in the past three years, 94 percent of school systems used this additional funding to reduce or entirely eliminate furlough days, and with the funding from the FY2017 budget, teacher furlough days should be a thing of the past.

The FY2017 budget also provides funding for higher education initiatives in our state, including the HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships. Since 2012, the number of Zell Miller Scholars at both public and private universities has significantly increased, and to account for this increase in eligible scholars, HB 751 allocates $59.1 million for FY2017 for Zell Miller and HOPE Scholarship recipients. FY2017 also appropriates $29.4 million in funding to the Move on When Ready dual enrollment program and an additional $1.2 million to the North Georgia Military Scholarship Grants program. Additionally, the budget establishes two new service loan programs of $100,000 each for large animal veterinarians and the Georgia National Guard to address the need for skilled individuals in those fields. Finally, HB 751 includes $44.4 million for formula earnings based on enrollment and increased square footage at both the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia. College students will not experience a tuition increase next fall due to the diligence of the General Assembly to provide adequate formula funding. I am proud of the hard work that has gone into this process to ensure that our students in our state’s higher education institutions will not pay more for tuition next fall.

Georgia has been at the forefront of criminal justice reforms, and since the implementation of these reforms, state juvenile justice facilities have seen a 25 percent decrease in population. To maintain this progress, FY2017 includes an additional $3.8 million to expand the state’s accountability courts, which are aimed at providing community alternatives, as proven alternatives to sentencing, to rehabilitate offenders and juveniles. In his State of the Judiciary, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson credited accountability courts with reducing crime by 45 percent, and with saving the state more than $51 million in prison costs in 2015. FY2017 also allocates $5.6 million to support educational initiatives in the state prison system, including operational costs for two charter high schools and expansion of GED fast track, vocational, and general education programs. By providing these individuals with beneficial skills, it will make their transition to re-entry more seamless and reduce their chances of recidivism. Georgia’s recidivism rate is at its lowest in 30 years, and I am proud of the work we have done in the General Assembly to give our citizens a second chance.

In addition to passing the FY2017 budget this week, the House passed a number of important bills that are now being considered by the state Senate. House Bill 34, also known as the “Georgia Right to Try Act,” was unanimously passed by the House and would give some terminally-ill patients faster access to experimental drugs and procedures that have passed the first of the three phases in the FDA drug approval process. Full FDA clearance of all three phases can take as long as ten years, but with HB 34, terminally-ill patients would have the option of trying experimental treatments that have passed the FDA’s Phase 1, meaning the treatments have met all safety precautions. There are 24 states that have similar legislation in place, and it is my hope that Georgia will become the 25th state to enact this type of legislation to offer some Georgians an opportunity at life-altering treatment.

Another significant measure that passed out of our chamber with overwhelming support was House Bill 798. HB 798 brings homeschool students into parity with other Georgia students for HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships. Currently, homeschool students are required to pre-pay their first semester tuition and then be reimbursed at the end of the semester if they are HOPE/Zell eligible. This procedure limits some homeschool students from being able to attend college and encourages them to incur costly student loans. Now under HB 798 HOPE/Zell homeschool students will be treated just like everyone else and will have the opportunity to have their tuition paid at the beginning of each semester and not retroactively. The HOPE Scholarship was created to keep our state’s brightest students in Georgia for college, and this legislation would give even more students that chance.

Finally, my colleagues and I unanimously passed legislation in the House this week which would make the “adoptable dog” the official state dog of Georgia. By naming the “adoptable dog” as the official state dog of Georgia, House Bill 561 will promote animal rescue and adoption, as well as responsible pet ownership. As many of you know Amy and I love our adopted dog Lauren who we got from an animal shelter, I was proud to support this measure which encourages responsible pet ownership, drives down the amount of dogs which will ultimately end up in our local animal shelters, and will help save the lives of many shelter animals.

With 24 days completed in the 2016 session, I am proud of the work we have already accomplished, and hope you are too. It is my honor to serve as your Representative. I take my responsibilities seriously, and make it a point to carefully weigh any legislation which crosses my desk for a vote. To help me accomplish this goal, please feel free to contact me to share your opinion on pending legislation or if I can help you in any other way. My cell phone is 770.324.2275 and you can reach me by email at trey.kelley@house.ga.gov.  As always, I ask you to keep me and our other state officials in your prayers. 

May God Bless You and Your Family,   

Trey Kelley