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Rehabilitation over incarceration
Georgia spends an average of $1 billion annually on housing prisoners in the state correctional system. For the past three years, Deal has used a conservative argument to tackle a progressive issue: reforming Georgia's criminal justice and juvenile justice systems to save money and rehabilitate lives. This year, he plans to embark on the initiative's third phase to help ex-offenders re-enter society. In recent months, the governor has suggested that he'll push to create better educational opportunities for inmates so they'll be more prepared and employable after prison. This year that includes hiring more staff to help former offenders find housing and, potentially, prohibiting state agencies from disqualifying job seekers with a criminal background during the application process. It's only the public sector. And it's only a small step. But it could give ex offenders a chance at getting a job and becoming productive members of society. The American Civil Liberties Union is supportive of the proposal. Now we just have to see whether legislation actually gets passed.
All this is great news. But it's not clear whether the cash saved by locking up fewer prisoners will be reinvested in additional rehabilitation programs. Or if the cash will simply go into the general fund to bankroll other initiatives.
Yes, lawmakers are mulling long overdue educator pay raises in hopes of winning voter support. But that's not the only proposal that could affect classrooms this session.
Two years ago, Republican lawmakers pushed for a constitutional amendment to revive the state charter school commission, which many believed would become a rubber stamp for the approval of more nontraditional public schools. But then the commission actually ended up doing its job, much to the dismay of conservative lawmakers. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, thinks the GOP could return with a new proposal that makes the charter school application process far less rigorous. Or even limit the commission's ability to deny bad charters. Another bill likely to come up for debate would force charter schools in Atlanta's city limits to help contribute to Atlanta Public Schools' pension debt, effectively bypassing a Georgia Supreme Court decision last September that said otherwise.
A few Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns that their GOP counterparts could continue the fight against Common Core, the national standardized tests for grades K-12 that right-wingers ferociously attacked last year because it "obliterates Georgia's constitutional autonomy," according to a resolution from Georgia's Republican Party. Backlash grew so great that hard-line conservatives eventually forced Deal to nix the state's assessment plans. Discussions may be rekindled under the Gold Dome in 2014.
State Reps. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, and Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, have pre-filed legislation that would allow HOPE grants to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for technical college students and effectively reverse cuts made to the statewide scholarship fund three years ago. Sources tell CL that Deal's office has pushed back and some tweaks to the current legislation may occur. But the HOPE measure is expected to pass and to land on the governor's desk for his signature. In addition, Deal wants to invest $45 million to improve public schools' slow Internet connections. Funny how that works in an election year.
Remember a few years back how Georgia's gridlock and lack of transit options were arguably considered the state's most pressing issue? Oh, how times have changed!
Since the epic failure in 2012 of the transportation sales tax known as T-SPLOST, no real solutions to raise cash for new rail and roads have been presented. And it's unlikely any bold visions will be unveiled this year under the Gold Dome. State leaders are content to pursue toll roads instead of transit to address congestion.
The closest we can expect is a proposal by state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, of a modified version of the sales tax, one that could ostensibly pass in Fulton and DeKalb counties. The legislation would allow two or more counties to band together and, with voter approval, levy a 1 cent sales tax to fund transportation. It's similar to the proposal that was most favored by environmentalists and transit advocates over other funding solutions when it was first introduced years ago. An alternate proposal by Fort to allow revenues from car rental taxes to build new transit projects actually passed the upper chamber and almost made it to the House floor last session, and will be pushed again this year.
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