Last week we passed two of the most important bills in the House, the “big” budget for next year and election reform.
The big budget for 2022 is $27.7 billion, an increase of $1.3 billion or 5% over last year’s original budget. As I’ve stated before, Georgia’s economy is doing much better than expected, and much better than the rest of the nation.
Nearly 90% of all the new money goes to education and health and human services. We will restore 60% ($567 million) of the 2021 cuts to education, though we will not fully fund QBE (by $383 million). However, as the feds have pumped in over $2.1 billion to education because of COVID, schools have (technically) seen a huge windfall. K-12 education is still our biggest outlay at $10.2 billion or 44% of the total budget. Enrollment in K-12 education declined by about 2% this year, the first drop in decades. We also increased education grants by $72 million to a total of $798 million for poorer counties. We also added $5 million for school lunches, $136 million for school construction, $12 million for career tech labs, and $4 million for Early Care and Learning. Teacher retirement got an additional $58 million.
Our universities added $58 million to the University System of Georgia, as well as refunded $70 million they lost last year. Our technical colleges got an additional $10 million. Both of these can also utilize a $333 million bond package.
Medicaid got an additional $106 million, elderly providers got $25 million, nursing centers got $15 million, and the Patients First Act got $68 million. Health and Human services got $59 million, and the Department of Behavioral Services added $16 million. Again, the feds gave us an additional $1 billion this year because of COVID.
Other big winners were $39.5 million to Rural Innovation Fund for technical infrastructure, another $10 million for rural broadband (we also spent another $20 million on this in the “small budget”), and $146 million in bonds for economic development. Transportation saw a $200 million add as well, due to the motor fuel fund.
Election reform was always going to be our most significant challenge this year.
Many Georgians believe that the 2020 election was rife with problems. Many other Georgians believe that the 2018 election was flawed. The vast majority of Georgians believe we had major problems with the last two elections. Clear thinking people on both sides should want to clarify our rules, especially when so many people are skeptical of the results.
The Senate has several bills regarding election reform. The House has only one, HB 531. It would strengthen security by requiring all absentee ballots have a drivers license number. This would eliminate subjective signature matching, which has been so problematic. It would require all ballot drop boxes to be secured inside of polling places where they can be monitored at all times. It would replace the Secretary of State as chairman of the Election Board, to be replaced by a chair appointed by the Legislature. It would go to a four- (instead of nine-) week runoff system, and use ranked choice for military members, easing their access. It would also eliminate out-of-precinct voting, prohibit private funding of election boards, and standardize early voting throughout the state. It will also lengthen the time a person must request an absentee ballot to 11 days prior to an election (instead of three). It would also require all counties to offer one Saturday of early voting, and then one Saturday or Sunday as well. It also requires counties to early scan (but not tally) their absentee ballots so they will have results ready on election night. It will also add a unique number to all ballots, as well as special paper to make sure they are not being fraudulently replicated.
HB 531 passed the House on a partisan vote. As there are several competing Senate bills as well, they will likely go to conference where the Senate and the House will hammer out their differences.
Over the last 18 years, we have passed 59 new laws to strengthen our elections. This bill is no different. By learning from past mistakes, as well as experiencing new challenges, we continually move to an ever fairer system of free elections.
Finally, I passed my Teacher Tax Credit for very rural schools in the House unanimously.
I hope you will continue to pray for me as I serve the people of Newton and Morgan counties.