January 7, 2014

Dickson: More education funds sought

Misty Watson
mistywatson@daltoncitizen.com

— State Rep. Tom Dickson is hoping to have some funds returned to local school systems while amending the 2014 budget during this year’s General Assembly.

Dickson, R-Cohutta, a retired school superintendent, was asked Tuesday morning if there was any chance of putting money back into education this year after years of cuts to state funding. Questions were submitted in writing anonymously during the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce’s legislative update breakfast.  

“We won’t know until Tuesday what kind of money will be available,” Dickson said. “That’s how much we can spend. There’s a lot of pressure to put more money into teachers’ salaries. I anticipate some additional money (because of increased tax revenue from a 5.8 percent growth in population.) ... I would not be surprised to see an increase in K-12 funding. I don’t know how that will be given back. My recommendations is to reduce austerity cuts.”

The drawback is that though there is an increase in revenue from the state’s growth, more money has to be put into programs such as Medicaid and education to accommodate the increased enrollment, Dickson said.

Dickson said he doesn’t see a major change to education this legislative session, which begins Monday. He expects to see people focused on freeing up money to let decisions be made at a local level, citing charter schools as an example.

“We forget sometimes how diverse the state is,” he said. “It’s different in the Whitfield County or Dalton Public school systems than in Atlanta or Valdosta.”

One thing that has helped in budgeting in recent years is the move to a “zero-base budget,” Dickson said. Budget items, such as education, which was evaluated last year, is given a zero-base budget then funding is added for necessities.

“We find programs that are not effective anymore or programs that went out five years ago, but we’re still funding,” he said. “Zero-base gets rid of those kinds of things.”

Dickson said there should not be an increase or decrease in educational funding the 2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1, except where there are changes in student population.

One person attending the legislative update said though criminal justice reform, which has been taking place for the last few years, is good, but it is putting pressure on the local jails.

State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, agreed.

“Reform means we change the way we think,” he said. “We must do that at a local level. ... The goal is not to drive up incarceration rates.”

Some of the reform has redefined misdemeanors to keep people facing certain charges where another person is not effected, such as for first-time possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, out of jail. The sentence would be served on probation, through fines and through community service. The reform has extended to the juvenile system to prevent violations for certain offenses from being punishable by time in a detention center.

It also created grants for individual counties to help prevent juveniles from breaking the law in the first place. Funds are first given to counties with higher rates of offenses by juveniles, which does not include Whitfield County.

Bethel believes there will be legislation from this session dealing with re-entering society from the prison system.

“We will focus on how to better serve the interest of society on re-entry,” he said. “It will allow people working sincerely to turn their life around to be able to do that.”

He expects legislation to be geared toward helping felons receive job skill training, counseling, mental health treatment, how to find a job and where to live. The goal of incarceration should be to help prevent repeat offenders.

“If you’re back in the system, we failed you,” Bethel said.

Jay Neal, who represented part of Whitfield County in the state House of Representatives, recently stepped down to head that effort.

Bethel plans to continue pushing the bill he authored that would allow for more adult vaccines to be allowed to be given at pharmacies. He says it would be more cost efficient for people and would give them more access to that aspect of health care.

“It’s significantly cheaper to administer a vaccine in a pharmacy,” Bethel said, adding that he thinks it would mean higher rates of vaccinated adults against illnesses such as pertussis.

Currently only a handful of vaccines, including the flu, are available at a pharmacy.

Bethel said he expects this General Assembly will focus mostly on “three B’s,” the budget, the ballot and brevity.

The primary historically has taken place in July, but a federal judge set the primary for all congressional offices for May 20.

Bethel says legislation will address that and will most likely move the state primary to May 20 as well to avoid extra expenses of holding two primaries.

Because of that, qualifying would take place in March. While legislators are in session, they cannot campaign or receive campaign funds. So Bethel says this will be a short session.

“People want to get back to their constituents to campaign,” he said.

Rep. Bruce Broadrick, R-Dalton, expects the 2014 budget amendments to be complete within the first couple of weeks of session so that attention can be quickly moved to the 2015 budget.

In regards to the 2014 budget, Broadrick said there will have to be adjustments made to accommodate the increase in the number of people on Medicaid, as well as education.

“We’re looking at Medicaid reform,” Broadrick said. “We have to look at the population. There are too many people covered by it.”

People with disabilities are the main group that is on Medicaid, he said, but legislators need to look at how programs to prevent people from needing medical treatment rather than “treating on the back end.”

The state has reduced the number of employees by training people how to handle more than one job efficiently, he said. But legislators will still have to address the growing number of people retiring and how to maintain their retirement.

“The baby boomer generation is moving through,” Broadrick said. “We have to look at how we’re going to take care of people moving through. It’s a challenge for us all to maintain and care for our employees.”