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Addressing key pieces of legislation after break to enjoy livestock festival

The first full week in April, also known as Master’s Week throughout most of Georgia, is the traditional spring break period for K-12 schools in our state.  For similar reasons, the General Assembly also took a brief break this week.  This break gave state legislators, a chance to review the status of legislation and prepare for the last three days of the current legislative session.  
This week we also enjoyed the 60th annual Screven County Livestock Festival. The week-long festivities concluded on Saturday with a parade and day-long entertainment.  Screven County residents and neighbors from near and far were in town to enjoy this great event.  
I would now like to take a moment to tell you about some key pieces of legislation that have already passed the House and await final passage. 
Perhaps nothing we do at the state capitol has more far reaching effects than our passage of the state budget. House Bill 78, the Fiscal Year 2012 (FY 2012) state budget, directs state spending from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012, and totals $18.1 billion in state funds. While state funds have experienced a net increase of 2 percent as a result of improving economic conditions, total spending for FY 2012 has decreased by over 4 percent due to expiring federal stimulus funds.
Not accounting for inflation, this puts us per capita below 2001 budget levels. With population numbers up by 18 percent in this decade, it is clear that some difficult adjustments had to be made. 
In general, we accounted for these reductions by asking state agencies and departments to cut spending by an average of 7 percent, keeping growth expenses in check, and by enacting measures that allow us to reduce service and payment costs. 
While the FY 2012 state budget affects all areas of state government, I would like to specifically remind you about the effects that HB 78 will have on Georgia Pre-K.  Because Pre-K is outpacing its lottery funding, the House adjusted the Georgia Pre-K program so that it remains financially stable.  Originally, the bi-partisan plan for preserving Pre-K would have reduced the program from six hours of daily instruction to just four hours of daily instruction.  However, after consulting pre-K teachers, administrators and providers, a new decision was reached.  Under this new plan, as implemented by HB 78, Georgia Pre-K will remain a full day, six hour instruction program.  This ensures full nutritional and educational opportunities for 86,000 children next year. 
Instead of reducing the number of daily hours, the new Pre-K plan will reduce the Pre-K year from 180 days to 160 days. 
Additionally, two more students will be added to each Pre-K class, moving the class size from 20 to 22.  Since all Georgia Pre-K classes have a paraprofessional in the room, the student to teacher ratio will max out at 11 to 1. 
Further, Pre-K providers will receive 94 percent of the operating funds they currently receive, and Pre-K teachers will receive 90 percent of their current salaries.  Governor Deal and his staff have worked to lessen the impact on the program, and I hope additional measures can be taken to soften the impact on Pre-K teachers.
Given the economic recession that has so drastically affected our state, we worked hard this session to balance the state budget and make necessary spending cuts while continuing to provide vital services for Georgians. 
To allow for a more thorough examination of our expenditures at the state level, my colleagues and I passed House Bill 33 earlier this session.  HB 33 is designed to increase efficiencies and decrease wasteful spending by implementing a zero-based budgeting system.  Specifically, HB 33 would allow the General Assembly to review every budgetary detail of state departments and agencies. This would allow us to fully examine every aspect of the entire state budget over a six-year period. HB 33 also would consolidate the House Budget Office and Senate Budget Office into one Joint Legislative Budget Office, a simple change that may save the state up to $1 million annually.
In addition to reforming our state’s budget process, the economic recession also brought to light the need for both criminal justice reform and immigration reform in our state. 
HB 265 addresses our need for criminal justice reform by creating the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians. This council will study criminal justice reform during the interim and make legislative recommendations to a joint legislative committee before the 2012 session. The intent of this bill is to find solutions that will allow the state to ensure public safety while decreasing the cost of our corrections system.  It is imperative that we look at these reforms.  Georgia currently spends more than $1 billion a year and has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. However, recent studies suggest that an estimated three-fourths of the state’s prison population is believed to have some type of drug addiction, which could be treated at much lower costs than imprisonment. 
For example, Georgia pays $49 per day per inmate housed in a state prison, compared to $1.50 per day for probation supervision or $16 per day for community treatment at a Day Reporting Center.
Another critical issue facing Georgia is illegal immigration.  Although many think of illegal immigration as a problem only for Border States, the Pew Hispanic Center recently determined that Georgia has the fastest growing illegal population in the nation.  As a result, our classrooms are more crowded, our healthcare system is stretched to its limits, transportation infrastructure is overburdened and our law enforcement community is pressed beyond its means. Current economic conditions make it clear that Georgia literally cannot afford to continue this drain on our already limited resources. With this in mind, we passed House Bill 87, legislation calling for fair practices for Georgia’s laborers and local communities. 
Under HB 87, employers would be required to verify that newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States by using the E-Verify system. If you are unfamiliar with E-Verify, it is an accurate, free, internet-based federal database.  This easy to use verification system is already used by more than 16,000 Georgia employers.  Additionally, HB 87 requires secure and verifiable identification for official purposes, and helps local law enforcement agencies handle issues associated with illegal immigration. It is important to note that this legislation does not affect the existing H-2A visa program that provides a legal avenue for foreign workers to temporarily come to Georgia and work with the agriculture industry in our state.
Finally, as you may be aware, health insurance premiums continue to increase despite changing federal laws, making health insurance unaffordable for many Georgians. House Bill 47 would help reduce the cost of health insurance by giving Georgians the option to purchase less expensive health insurance plans.  Specifically, HB 47 would allow insurance companies licensed in Georgia to sell accident and health insurance policies that are approved for sale in other states.  This simple change would create a more open insurance market with greater competition, ultimately resulting in less expensive health insurance options for Georgians.
Though each of these bills has passed the House, they must receive final passage from the Senate before they can be sent to the governor.  If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, these bills will become law.
Now that spring break is over, the General Assembly will begin what is likely to be the busiest week of the legislative session.  Though only three legislative days remain, please use this last remaining time to let me know of any concerns that you might have regarding our state. While the legislative session may be coming to an end, there are still many issues left to debate.  I need to know your opinions on these issues so that I can effectively represent you and your family. You can reach me at my Capitol office at 404-656-5099 or jon.burns@house.ga.gov.
Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.

Jon Burns represents Screven County as part of his District 157 of the Georgia State House of Representatives.