Atlanta Journal-Constitution Jan. 13: Tough times needn’t defer fixes for the future here

This op-ed appeared in the January 13, 2013 (Sunday edition) of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Kelly McCutchen

Not everything is off limits to government in an economic recession. On the contrary, the challenge forces government to explore opportunities for fundamental reforms that improve efficiency and effectiveness in the long run. Below are ideas that, if implemented, could help position Georgia ideally for the future.

Build on the bipartisan criminal justice reforms enacted in 2012 by reforming the juvenile justice system and protecting innocent owners and their property rights by reforming Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture law. Improve access to justice for victims of medical negligence with patient-centered tort reform. Georgia’s medical malpractice system works for trial lawyers and insurance companies, not for patients harmed by malpractice. A nonlitigious system would compensate more victims, reduce injuries and medical errors and could save Georgia taxpayers $1 billion a year.

Follow Florida’s successful patient-centered Medicaid reform for disabled citizens. With customized benefits and multiple options, patient satisfaction and health outcomes improved. Estimates show savings of more than $100 million.

Don’t renew the hospital bed tax without corresponding cost-saving reforms. The $230 million tax was enacted three years ago to draw down extra federal funding and sold as a temporary solution. Georgia’s Medicaid program is $700 million in the red without the tax. At the very least, legislators should enact long-term cost-saving measures so they can call this a temporary tax with a straight face.

Start shifting a portion of the “4th penny” to statewide transit and paratransit services. Georgia motorists are paying this tax on motor fuel, but it is not being spent on transportation. Given budget constraints, a small shift in funding would be a show of faith toward eventually allocating the entire amount to transportation projects.

Help attract and retain high-quality teachers by offering alternatives to outdated defined-benefit pensions. Since 2008, all state employees other than teachers have been able to choose a hybrid pension plan, a combination of a small, defined benefit pension and a portable, 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan. Recent studies have shown the most-effective teachers prefer these types of plans.

Redirect a small portion of school construction bonds to fund fiber-optic connections to enable broadband Internet access for every student in the state. The movement in education toward digital learning places less emphasis on buildings and more on high-quality Internet connections. Education is critical to economic opportunity; rural students must not be left behind. The technology would also enhance health care in remote areas via telemedicine. Increase flexibility in existing funding to cover priority needs.

Georgia spends more money per student on education-related capital projects than all but nine states. Creating a flexible local sales tax to substitute for the E-SPLOST (education special purpose local-option tax) would allow local governments to split revenue among any combination of education capital projects, transportation capital projects or temporary shoring up of operating budgets for schools in dire circumstances.

Kelly McCutchen is president of The Georgia Public Policy Foundation.


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