Special Edition Gold Dome Report -
January 5, 2017
The House Appropriations Committee and a couple of study Committees, convened to address business before the legislative session begins on Monday, January 9. The meetings were mainly focused on giving State agencies an opportunity to bring budget requests to legislators and provide an overview of their responsibilities.
Governor Deal made a few important announcements. Relating to Education, there was good news and bad news. As for the bad news, the Governor announced that the list of chronically failing schools has been updated by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA). The list of failing schools has unfortunately gone up to 152, which is an increase of 26 schools throughout 35 districts. On a more positive note however, the Governor announced that 218 public schools throughout 53 districts will receive the Highest Performing or Greatest Gains school awards. This indicates an increase of 31 schools from last year. The awards are administered by GOSA and are part of the Statewide Accountability System. The “Highest Performing” award is given to schools that have earned a score in the 93rd percentile of the CCRPI over three years. The “Greatest Gains” award goes to schools that have a CCRPI Progress Score in the 93rd percentile.
House Appropriations Subcommittee – Education
The House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Education discussed the State’s AFY 2017 and FY 2018 Budgets. The Subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Tom Dickson (R-Cohutta), however he will not returning to the General Assembly since he lost his reelection bid. The Speaker will name new Chairmen to various House Committees and Subcommittees for Appropriations next week. Among attendees at this meeting included Rep. Valerie Clark (R-Lawrenceville) who is the Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Clark is another House member who lost her re-election bid and will not be returning to the Capitol on January 9. Rep. Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth), Rep. David Casas (R-Lilburn), as well as members of the House and Senate Education Committees were present. Today, they heard presentations from the Employee Retirement System of Georgia (ERS), the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia (TRS), the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), and the State Department of Education (DOE).
ERS reported that its current membership is around 60,000 active members; however, there is no indication of any further growth. The ERS investment return has fallen short of the 7.5% goal, but it is expected to improve and move back into the 7.5% range. Buster Evans reported that TRS currently has 263,000 active members and 109,000 beneficiaries of the system. The median age of people entering into the system is 28 years of age and they usually leave the system with 30 years of experience, on average. The average benefit paid is $3,209 per month and they paid out $4.2 billion dollars in benefits. TRS’s current funding ratio is 79.1% as of June, which puts Georgia in the top 3 nationally. Employees are capped at a 6% contribution rate and employer contributions are at 14.27%. Mr. Evans requested that the employer contribution rate be raised to 16.82% for AFY 2017.
Mr. Evans then discussed one of the major challenges TRS and ERS faces in the long term: the number of active members is not on pace with enrollment numbers. In 2009, TRS had 269 people contributing as active members. Currently, there are 8,000 people less than 2009, but school enrollment has increased since then. By increasing the number of active members, TRS would see larger revenues in the long run.
Martha Ann Todd, with the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, mentioned that GOSA intends to move forward with improvements to their grading system, which has received some pushback from educator groups. She said the reports are graded on an A-F scale and provide parents with a good source of information on their schools’ progress. She also stated that the State’s list of failing schools has increased by 26 schools to a total of 153 schools (there were 127 schools on the list in 2015). Thus, this is an issue the State needs to address. The largest increase in failing schools is in Fulton County. However, DeKalb County reduced its number of failing schools.
Amy Jacobs, Director at DECAL said that her Department has been involved with a number of projects, including some studies on the preparedness of pre-k students. Their study followed pre-k students through the 3rd grade and found that the pre-k programs are working and children are able to maintain their previous gains in following years of education. One Subcommittee member asked how Georgia’s pre-k program compares with other states’ programs. Chairman Brooks Coleman also posed a question about academic standards. Specifically, he wondered if Georgia was placing too many requirements and expectations on pre-k students. He had been approached by some teacher groups who expressed concern that children are overloaded with information and are not given a recess period. Amy Jacobs acknowledged that a lot is demanded of students, but it has resulted in a better pre-k program overall. She also said that DECAL’s standards align directly with other standards required by the State.
Superintendent Richard Woods made some brief remarks to the Subcommittee. He discussed integrating the Department of Education's (DOE) standards with other standards to make sure the education system runs efficiently. He stated that the department is looking at creating a new position called a “nutritionist." He also assured the Subcommittee that he and the department will be doing a better job of supporting education in general in Georgia. He mentioned giving teachers more tools such as the teacher resource links online.
Ted Beck provided the Subcommittee with the DOE’s budget request. He said these numbers are mostly estimates at this point, so nothing is final. For AFY 2017, Mr. Beck said that growth was 10,789 FTEs, which indicates a moderately slow growth year. He said one issue is that Georgia is seeing a decline in the school-aged population due to the low birth rates after the recession. In 2008, Georgia saw its first decline in births, due to the poor economy. Those low numbers are now catching up, which is why enrollment numbers are down and there are fewer kindergarteners each year. For growth in AFY 2017 the department will need $70 million; $17 million for hold harmless (for systems which have gotten worse); nine million for the State charter supplement. The total request for the midterm adjustment is $100-105 million.
For FY 2018, Mr. Beck said DOE's request will be $11 million. He mentioned a couple of offline requests the Department had received, including a request for a Move on When Ready Coordinator and a request for a STEM Certification Specialist (as half of all schools expressed interest in a STEM specialist). The Department has also received requests for a career interest coordinator and for four assessment specialists. Finally, he mentioned that DOE is looking at improving the after-school program. Overall, there is a five million dollar gap between what districts want to be able to do and the current funding level. A couple of legislators also sounded interested in the Department doing a comprehensive rewrite of the State’s information systems which hold education-related data.
House Appropriations Subcommittee – Public Safety
Rep. Andy Welch (R-McDonough) chaired this Subcommittee, which also included Rep. Alex Atwood (R-St. Simons who is also retiring), Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-McDonough), Rep. Johnnie Caldwell (R-Thomaston), Rep. Terry Rogers (R-Clarkesville), Rep. Christian Coomer (R-Cartersville), Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), and Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway). The Subcommittee considered some discussion over pay raises for Superior Court judges. The Subcommittee also received overviews from representatives of the Georgia Supreme Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals is seeking a pay raise from $174,500 to $190,000. The Supreme Court discussed and advocated for 12.5% pay raises for Supreme Court judges. Members of the Subcommittee are unsure if they will be moving forward with such raises since other pay raises were just approved in 2015. The Supreme Court’s proposal would increase pay for judges from $175,000/year to $200,000/year. Superior Court Judge’s salaries would increase from $126,265/year to $132,265/year. They also discussed eliminating local supplements, which would be an advantage to counties. Among other discussions included requests for State funds to pay for law clerks' positions across the State; current, the State funds such positions based on circuits rather than counties. Accountability courts were also discussed as well as how senior judges might be utilized to help with their workloads. Subcommittee members reminded folks that the Budget last year included funds for superior court judges (raises) for those judges to address the workload of accountability courts; they seemed hesitant to add more funds for senior judges to do this same work.
Senate Study Committee on Emergency Cardiac Care Centers
Chair Renee Unterman (R-Buford) called the last meeting of this study committee to order. The meeting was brief, with the Study Committee approving their recommendations to be considered by the General Assembly. They are recommending that the General Assembly pass legislation on cardiac care certification for a system-wide network. The report also recommends that legislation be passed that would make Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) more accessible in schools and require that such devices must be located within a certain distance from students. This request for legislation is by Sen. Butch Miller (R-Gainesville) and will be known as “Cory’s Law” after Cory Wilson, who suffered a sudden cardiac event in 2013. Chair Unterman also indicated that they are recommending improved CPR training in schools. At the last meeting, it was determined that the CPR training bill should be separate from the other issues.
Senate Study Committee on Opioid Abuse
Chair Renee Unterman (R-Buford) called the Study Committee to order for a brief meeting for the purpose of approving the Study Committee’s report. She thanked Committee members and everyone else who contributed this year. The report will recommend greater funding for addiction services, which she said have been lacking since the recession. It will also recommend increasing availability and accessibility of Narcan (Naloxone) to make it more available for people suffering overdoses. It will include recommendations for the State to address neonatal abstinence syndrome in infants whose parents suffer from substance addiction. She mentioned the likelihood of an omnibus bill being introduced to address a wide range of mental health issues. The members of the Study Committee approved the recommendations, which will be submitted to the Senate Research Office for public viewing.
Other Senate Study Committee Reports from 2016 may be found at this link:
Information relating to House Study Committees is contained within this link:
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