Opinion: Fiscal prudence, commonsense can help with Ga.’s challenges

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC


Two themes will run through the legislative session that began in January. One is continued uncertainty about the budget, after last year’s pandemic-induced recession. The other is how Georgia Republicans, who held onto both chambers of the state Capitol in November, will react to watching Democrats Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win statewide.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for lawmakers to move Georgia forward without breaking the bank or playing politics.

Start with our students. Education is paramount for our young people to maximize their potential. But for 10 months, thousands of students have been falling behind.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Many schools remain closed, virtual learning has been uneven at best, and state education leaders’ chief concern seems to be shedding accountability measures they’ve long resented. There are even calls for lawmakers, who fund schools on a per-pupil basis, to “hold harmless” districts with enrollment declines, even though families left due to inadequate services. Funny how their answer, whether there are more students or fewer, is always “more money.”

Money is tight, and Congress has just sent Georgia schools an extra $1.8 billion – and counting – in emergency funds. A state “hold harmless” budget supplement should be an easy “no.”

Instead of sending more money to schools whether they’re open or not, let the money follow the child. Many students have suffered substantial learning loss over the past 10 months, and thousands still don’t know when their public school will reopen. These families deserve to use existing state education funding in whatever setting best meets their needs. Whether that means taking advantage of public charter schools, learning pods, homeschooling or private schools, students now more than ever need the freedom to choose the best education for them.

In healthcare, too, Georgians would benefit from more flexibility. Our doctors and nurses have acted bravely throughout the pandemic, but hospitals are again reaching their capacity amid a post-holiday surge of COVID-19. New strains of the virus only heighten this danger.

Lawmakers can loosen multiple state regulations that make it difficult for providers to pivot, or for entrepreneurs and innovators to provide new services. Restrictions on opening new lines of service or moving around existing ones, or on healthcare professionals being able to practice to the full extent of their training, only limit Georgians’ ability to find treatment when and how they need it.

In his public-health executive orders, Gov. Brian Kemp has temporarily waived some key regulations. By making many of these permanent, the General Assembly could ensure Georgians don’t need to wait for the next pandemic to enjoy more options for healthcare.

Finally, while Georgia’s relatively early move to reopen its economy spurred a faster economic recovery than in many other states, thousands of Georgians remain jobless. The new Congress is expected to debate sending more stimulus checks and extending extra unemployment benefits, but most of these folks would prefer to go back to work.

For some, that means finding a new job in their previous field. For others, it means finding a new career.

Georgia already provides low or free tuition at technical colleges for some high-demand careers, but it keeps the bar too high for other careers by imposing onerous licensing requirements. Lawmakers can start with universal recognition of licenses in good standing granted by other states. Since 2018, nine states, including Pennsylvania, Colorado and Missouri, have passed universal recognition. In Arizona, almost 1,200 people benefited in the first year under the new policy.

These policies wouldn’t strain the budget, and they aren’t partisan measures. They’re just good, common-sense ideas to help Georgians get back on track in 2021.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO, Georgia Public Policy Foundation.