Remarks as prepared for delivery to a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly on Jan. 17, 2013:
Lt. Governor Cagle, Speaker Ralston, President Pro Tem Shafer, Speaker Pro Tem Jones, Members of the General Assembly, Members of the Judiciary, my fellow Georgians:
To the Members of the General Assembly, congratulations on your election. To the new members of the House and Senate, welcome! You are now part of one of the greatest and most successful experiments in the history of mankind, the process of self-governance, whereby free people entrust to us the responsibility of preserving their freedoms.
We do so if we confine our actions to those things which our constituents cannot do for themselves. Our constitution defines some of the things we shall do, as well as some of the things we shall not do. Between those goal posts of shall and shall not lies the field on which we play. It is not a Field of Dreams but a Field of Law. Like spectators in the stands of a great stadium, a cacophony of voices will tell you what play to run and agree or disagree with your performance. Just remember, we are all on the same team with you, and we share a common purpose of making Georgia the best place to work, play, get an education and raise a family.
Last year, I told you that I had a goal: To fulfill the truest purposes of government – the ones for which Georgians need their government most – “and then get out of the way so that they can live their lives in freedom and as they see fit.”
So far, I believe we have done that well. We have made communities safer, improved educational opportunities, provided for infrastructure improvements, driven workforce development, generated a better business environment and created jobs. Together, we have implemented innovative tax reform that incentivizes business growth, passed smart-on-crime criminal justice reform and saved HOPE.
This year, I challenge you to join me as we go forward with a focus on progress. While times have been tough and we have had to make difficult choices, I will not lead our state with a Doomsday mindset, reacting erratically and hastily based on fear or ignorance. Instead, we will move forward with confidence, focusing on the proven foundations of a growing Georgia, those that keep us steady during times of uncertainty but also during times of prosperity; foremost among these are public safety, education, healthcare and economic development
Just as Georgia is too big and too important to fall prey to Doomsayers’ pessimism, it is also too big and too important to be divided by race, geography or ideology. This year, let’s concentrate on the things on which we can all agree: The foundations that improve the lives of our citizens and undergird the bright horizons of tomorrow.
In the first foundation, Public Safety, let’s capitalize on the success that we have already had in criminal justice reform, in which, last year, we crafted legislation that saves both lives and taxpayer dollars. Through increased use of accountability courts – drug, DUI, mental health and veteran courts – along with other measures, this state will avoid the need to add 5,000 prison beds over five years and save taxpayers at least $264 million; these measures simultaneously decrease the number of offenders who end up back in jail after being released – and create productive, taxpaying citizens rather than more dangerous criminals. And we have continued funding for accountability courts by allocating $11.6 million toward that purpose in my budget proposal.
This year we will continue our work by bringing legislation designed to produce better results with juvenile offenders and divert them from the adult system. I want to thank the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians for their hard work over the past two years. I urge your strong consideration of their recommendations for the Juvenile Justice system. Similar to last year, we would emphasize community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low-risk offenders as an alternative to regional and state youth centers. To get started, I will be requesting $5 million in the FY 2014 budget to create an incentive funding program that encourages communities to create and utilize these community-based options. These options range from substance abuse treatment to family counseling and provide judges with viable, alternative sentencing options. Just as with last year, we stand to lower recidivism and save taxpayer dollars. For example, are you aware that the cost of each bed in a Youth Detention Center is in excess of $91,000 each year? It is certainly an area where less costly options must be used. Together, we can continue to improve our state’s justice systems while keeping our citizens safe by reserving our prison beds for violent offenders.
This year provides another opportunity to bolster public safety.
This past summer, Georgia witnessed several tragic accidents on our waterways.
We know alcohol is involved in over 50 percent of all boating fatalities each year. On Georgia’s roads, if the operator of a vehicle has a Blood Alcohol content of .08 or higher, he can be charged with Driving Under the Influence. However, you cannot be charged with Boating Under the Influence unless your Blood Alcohol level is .10 or higher. The Jake and Griffin Prince BUI Law that I am proposing will change that. If you are too drunk to drive an automobile, you are too drunk to drive a boat!
I will also propose, through the Kile Glover Boat Education Law, that you place age limits and educational requirements on young operators of boats and personal watercraft and that children who are 13 or younger must wear life jackets when riding in an open boat that is moving.
Another foundation block for growing a more prosperous Georgia is education. Since we are talking about foundations, let’s talk about our earliest learners, who build upon what they learn today for the rest of their lives. We have an outstanding pre-K program that has been nationally recognized. This past year, the National Institute for Early Education Research awarded Georgia its first 10 out of 10 in measures of quality; we were one of only five states to receive such a designation.
In the budget for FY 2014, I have added 10 days to the pre-K school year, thereby restoring it to a full 180 days and increasing the salaries of deserving teachers.
Last year, we focused on literacy by designating $1.6M to establish a reading mentor’s program that was designed to grow the percentage of Georgia’s children who are reading on grade level by the third grade. Early indicators are proving it a good investment. We must not let our children fall behind, for that is a path toward remediation and delayed success. As such, I have included $1.6 million in this year’s budget to continue the reading mentor program.
While most state agencies have seen their budgets for the remainder of this fiscal year and for the FY2014 reduced by an average of 3 percent, K-12 education was not subject to these reductions. In fact, the budget will give $156M in additional funding for enrollment growth in K-12 schools in FY2013. For next year, there will be $147 million for enrollment growth and salary increases for teachers based on training and experience. There is also an additional $41 million to fully fund the revised Equalization formulas adopted last year.
We must continue to make K-12 education a top priority, because Georgia recently ranked 45th out of the 47 states that reported graduation rates under the cohort method. This is unacceptable! We can do better! We will do better!
The people of Georgia spoke loud and clear when they adopted the Constitutional Amendment on Charter Schools by an overwhelming margin. The message they sent was this – They are not satisfied with the status quo! And neither am I!