As Georgia emerges from the recession, we face a great opportunity to reshape state government for the future. Rather than blindly funding the same ineffective programs, we can rebuild smarter, more efficient programs.
● Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly laid the groundwork in 2011 for the first fundamental change by establishing a panel of experts to review Georgia’s criminal justice system. The panel’s recommendations present a common-sense strategy to divert nonviolent offenders, especially those with drug or mental health problems, to more effective treatment and community-based options. This will help free up Georgia’s overcrowded prisons, reduce pressure on local jails and still protect people from violent felons. The significant long-term savings from lower incarceration costs will fund the additional services.
● One way to maximize economic opportunity for individuals and small businesses is to bring our tax code in line with other states. Although our state and local tax burden is modest, ranking 38th nationally, comparing Georgia to its neighbors clearly highlights opportunities for reform. The average Georgian is paying $361 more in income tax and $154 more in property tax than the per capita average of Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida. The often-discussed tobacco tax brings in $4 per person less than our neighbors, but Georgians pay a whopping $50 a year less in gas taxes. On the business side, Georgia is one of only 10 states charging sales tax on energy used in manufacturing and Georgia’s tax on insurance premiums is the sixth-highest in the nation.
Reducing income and property taxes is politically popular, but requires an increase in Georgia’s sales tax rate or a broadening of the sales tax base. To offset the impact of such a move on low- and middle-income families, Georgia could increase its very low standard deduction and eliminate the marriage penalty.
● Among the most exciting opportunities, digital learning is poised to fundamentally transform k-12 education over the next decade. Georgia must embrace this chance to remove barriers to a stellar education for poor- and middle-class students, starting with restoring the state’s ability to offer educational opportunities that don’t trap children within local school system borders.
A ruling last year by the Georgia Supreme Court legally and financially jeopardized schools that serve children from multiple counties, as well as virtual schools. It’s time to expand, not limit, our children’s opportunities. Amending Georgia’s Constitution can enable students to take advantage of every quality educational option, regardless of arbitrary political boundaries or petty politics.
Fundamental change is politically difficult during normal times, but Georgia has opportunities to venture into bold and innovative territory, and the Legislature should chart that course.
(Commentary published Sunday January 8 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)