State Sen. Harold Jones II of Augusta. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Democrats to Kemp: ‘Medicaid expansion is the only answer’

Gov. Brian Kemp’s first State of the State address Thursday outlined his plan to boost teacher pay by $3,000 this year and push for a Medicaid waiver that could give the state more flexibility to use federal healthcare dollars. 

State Democrats welcomed his bipartisan tone but were critical of a waiver program they derided as a half-measure. And they demanded full expansion of the Medicaid program, which Kemp and other Republican leaders have cast as too costly

In the party’s response, state Sen. Harold Jones II of Augusta also called for a community-based schooling system and proposed a program that will allow student loan borrowers more leeway to repay their loans over a 10-year period. 

Here’s his response, which will also air Thursday at 7p.m. on GPB: 

“Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak to you this evening. This week should be a week of pride for all our citizens. As we watch the seamless transfer of governance from one Administration to the next, we see the grand American experiment being validated. 

I would like to thank former Governor Nathan Deal and his wife Sandra Deal for their service to our great State, and I extend congratulations to Governor Kemp on winning a hard fought campaign.

Today you had an opportunity to hear from our new governor. He spoke of a desire for us to rise above partisanship and work for a better future for all Georgians. It is true that only by working together can we address the unique challenges facing our state. 

The governor spoke of Georgia's rank as the number one state to do business. As Georgians we should be proud of that designation, but we have to aim higher. We cannot be content to be number one for business while we are ranked 46th for health care.

Our healthcare challenge is a rural problem, an urban problem and suburban problem. It affects every Georgian in every corner of this state. 

Many of our citizens do not have health insurance, and today far too many of our neighbors, friends and family members will struggle to choose between paying an emergency room bill or their light bill. 

Without health insurance, people who are suffering from opioid dependence desperately want to get their life in order but cannot afford treatment. 

Without health insurance, nurses, doctors, orderlies — and above all patients — worry that their hospital may be forced to close because of rising uninsured health care costs. 

As a state, we have tried to fix this problem. We have used tax credits and incentives to spur investment as a way to cover health care costs. Yet people still remain uninsured and hospitals remain closed. 

It is clear that nothing we've tried in the past will solve the problems we face today.

The answer lies with Medicaid expansion. 

Medicaid expansion is the only answer that will provide the state a nine-to-one return on its financial investment. 

Medicaid expansion is the answer for families who are struggling with whether to pay their light bill or their doctor bill. 

Medicaid expansion is the answer for our hospitals: it allows them to keep their cost in line, their patients secure, and their workers employed.

Medicaid expansion will make Georgia healthier, but we shouldn't stop there. We should also aim to be number one in Education. 

The governor reminded us that education was fully funded last year. But he failed to mention that for more than a decade, education has been underfunded. This lack of commitment to education cost our state over 9 billion dollars in education funds. 
As we failed to engage in real education reform, class sizes increased, teacher pay stagnated, and teacher morale faltered.

So to be number one in education, we must go beyond our commitment to do the bare minimum. That is why Democrats are proposing a community school plan. 

A community school plan offers a holistic approach to educating our children. Education is more than just teaching to a test. 

Education is actively engaging parents, teachers, businesses, and community organizations to work closely with each school. 

Education means that if a child is hungry they cannot learn. If extra nutrition services are needed we must provide it. 

Education is helping a child whose parents work long hours by providing after school services. 

Education is increasing health care services so that a sick child can get better and return to the classroom.

And education means that our teachers must be adequately compensated, and therefore we agree with the governor that they deserve a raise. 

But let’s go further. Let’s help students beyond their high school diploma. Let’s be the number one state in managing student debt. 

College or technical school are essential to success in our new economy. 

But far too many of young people cannot afford to go to college, and far too often those they do go are saddled with massive debt. 

Democrats are proposing a program called "Pay it Forward, Pay it Back." This program will allow student loan borrowers to pay back their loans at a fixed amount over a 10 year period of time. 

Georgia is one of only two states that does not provide a needs based financial aid plan. Income should never be a barrier to pursuing higher education. 

Once our students enter the workforce, we should also ensure that they receive fair pay. Georgia should be the number one state for wages.

We must first raise our minimum wage. Democrats are proposing to raise the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. 

Raising the minimum wage will increase Georgians’ income and help them fully participate in the economy. Raising the minimum wage will grow our state's economy: more people will have paychecks that provide a livable wage, therefore spending more money in our state and decreasing dependence on government programs. As the economy grows, businesses hire more people and wages go up for all Georgians. 

Keeping our citizens safe should always be a top priority, and we support the Governor’s efforts to reduce gang violence in our state. 

It is essential that we do this while also continuing the critical work of criminal justice reform and protecting the civil liberties of our citizens. 

Fear-mongering is not the way forward, nor are the harsh tactics of the drug war that decimated African American communities in recent years.

Now, as Democrats we understand we must work with Republicans to accomplish our goals. Although we seek bipartisan consensus there are some fundamental areas of our democracy we cannot compromise. 

We cannot compromise on ensuring that the right to vote is protected and the election process remains fair. We cannot compromise on a woman’s reproductive health choice and we will never punish persons for choosing who to love. 

My fellow Georgians, these are just a few highlights on the Democratic legislative agenda. 

Yes, we are faced with challenges but together we will meet them. Together we will become the number one state, not just for business but for people. 

We will know we are the number one state not because magazines tell us we are, but because we see vibrant safe communities, healthy educated children, and above all an unbridled optimism for the future, always striving to aim higher. 

Thank you so much, God bless you, your family and the great state of Georgia.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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