By Kelly McCutchen
Conventional wisdom says a budget surplus plus an election year equals a legislative session that adjourns quickly to maximize time for campaigning and fundraising, but not before spreading government funds as widely as possible to maximize voter “happiness.” But Georgia, like many states, faces real challenges so one can hope for leadership on real reforms instead of politics as usual.
The current political debate over income inequality distracts attention from a more important issue: economic opportunity. With Georgia’s high level of poverty and a middle class feeling like they are economically stuck in the mud, it’s more important than ever that our policies focus on empowering individuals with every opportunity to climb the economic ladder and tearing down outdated regulatory barriers that stand in their way.
Economic opportunity begins with quality education. Replacing Georgia’s 30-year-old school funding formula with a student-centered model is overdue and will dominate the headlines, but the shift to a competency-based education system is perhaps the most overlooked recommendation of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission.
The Commission recommends offering state tests every nine weeks so students can move at individual speed, giving classroom teachers much needed flexibility and moving students off the conveyor belt of the current factory model of education where time is fixed and learning is variable.
Just as every child is unique in how quickly they learn, not every school is right for all children. Education Savings Accounts would offer parents more educational options, private tutoring where needed, access to special services for special needs students or even a way to save for college that could help fill the gap between college tuition and the HOPE scholarship. A recent statewide poll shows over 67 percent support for joining the five states already empowering parents with this option.
Georgia is already a leader in telehealth and health information technology. Now it’s time to lead the way in using technology to expand affordable, quality health care rather than expanding an expensive, overregulated and ineffective Medicaid program. Joining the growing number of states that have created a market for Direct Primary Care would be a good start. Also known as “concierge care for the little guy,” this allows individuals to pay as little as $50-$75 a month for almost unlimited access to primary care and the ability to access care outside of normal office hours.
Georgia’s top income tax rate of 6 percent has been in place since 1937 and affects Georgians earning as little as $5.77 an hour. A recent analysis by Dr. Robert D. Buschman of Georgia State University showed the impact on state revenue would be minimal if Georgia simplifies the tax code – in a fair way – by reducing six tax brackets to one and reducing the rate by nearly 10 percent. Georgia is under pressure to remain competitive; North Carolina recently reduced its income tax rate from 7.75 percent to 5.499 percent.
Government regulation is sometimes necessary, but overregulation puts a damper on jobs and creates unfair profits for a select few who benefit. Georgia, for example, is one of only two states where breweries cannot sell directly to consumers or retailers, but must go through a wholesaler. Simply treating breweries the same as wineries could help numerous small businesses across the state.
Most people view Georgia as a right-to-work state, yet one worker in three needs the government’s permission to pursue an occupation. Professional licensing and the accompanying training costs are often insurmountable barriers for low-income Georgians to becoming productive citizens. Less burdensome options include inspections, registration, certification or old-fashioned market competition.
Even the regulation-happy Obama Administration supports reducing such barriers. In a report issued recently it noted “the practice of licensing can impose substantial costs on job seekers, consumers, and the economy more generally.” More importantly, a ruling by the United State Supreme Court last year on a North Carolina case means state licensing boards may no longer have protection from federal antitrust lawsuits unless reforms are implemented.
There is value in a quick election-year legislative session as long as it is focused on lowering hurdles to economic opportunity and empowering individuals rather than special interests.
Kelly McCutchen is president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 8, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.