January 18, 2014

Deal’s vision for state deserves scrutiny

The Daily Citizen

Editor’s note: For a look at the juvenile justice reforms mentioned below, see Monday’s Daily Citizen.

Gov. Nathan Deal laid out his 2014 priorities last week during his State of the State speech. The speech put some interesting proposals on the table, but it also included some troubling omissions.

First the good.

Deal wants to put an increased emphasis on career and technical education. For too long, parents, educators and lawmakers have acted as if the only futures young people face are prison or Harvard University.

In pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, tens of thousands of young people have run up huge debt, and many have ended up in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, employers can’t find enough people to fill well-paying jobs in the skilled trades.

Deal has proposed that lawmakers create a Zell Miller HOPE Grant for students at the state’s technical colleges that would cover 100 percent of tuition for those who maintain a 3.5 grade point average. That’s a good start. But lawmakers should look at ways to divert HOPE funds from marginal students at four-year colleges, those who are unlikely to graduate on time or who intend to major in subjects that are unlikely to help them in the job market, towards students studying high-demand trades.

Deal also plans to push forward on criminal justice reform, which has been one of the high points of his administration.

Two years ago, the state enacted sweeping reforms designed to keep nonviolent, low-level offenders out of prison and expand drug courts that allow those facing drug charges to avoid prison if they pursue treatment for their addiction and maintain jobs and sobriety.

And last year, lawmakers enacted similar reforms for the juvenile justice system designed to make sure that only the worst of offenders are placed in detention facilities and to increase resources for rehabilitation.

This year, Deal wants to improve the transition of inmates back into society and into the workforce, providing them with adult education and mental health assistance so that they do not relapse into their old habits when they are released.

Unfortunately, Deal’s speech talked about tax reform only in the past tense, such as noting the state has abolished the sales tax on energy used in manufacturing. Ideally, the state should be looking at ways to phase out its income tax. At the very least, lawmakers should be looking for further ways to cut taxes and simplify the state’s tax system. But Deal does not seem to see tax reform as a priority.

Nor does spending restraint seem to be a high priority for the governor. He promises millions of dollars for education and for deepening the Port of Savannah. But there was little in his speech about cutting, much less ending, any spending programs or agencies.

The governor has laid out some worthy proposals for the General Assembly. But we hope legislators will also address some of the issues he didn’t highlight.