While the rain steadily fell outside the capitol in Atlanta last week, a wind of change was blowing inside the gold dome.
For the first time in recent memory, a group of legislators gathered to lay out their plans for the Georgia Legislature for the upcoming year. I am proud to have been part of the group, which was made up of members of the Georgia House of Representatives.
Why was laying out our road map important? It's simple. To make true progress, we must know where we are going.
So last week, we listed our funding priorities for 2009: education, healthcare, public safety and natural resources. We looked at the needs of our citizens and sought to balance those needs with the revenue available to meet them.
At the top of our priority list is education. Local school systems have been under budgetary assault in recent years because of austerity cuts. Simply put, they've been asked by state leaders to do far more work with far less money.
On the whole, we are actually spending more money on education this year than in previous years. However, much of that money is tied up in specific programs where school systems have to take spending direction from state leaders.
That creates a two-fold problem. First, it takes control of money out of the hands of local leaders. Secondly, I think many people in the Legislature have lost track of the basics of education - teaching children in the classroom. Instead, they are much more concerned with throwing money at new programs designed to be educational cure-alls. However, these programs often only infect the process, and it is children and educators left to suffer from the side effects.
Reducing austerity cuts and sending more decision-making power back to local school systems is a good way to begin the healing process.
To that end, we are committing to restoring $141 million in austerity reductions, along with fully funding the Quality Basic Education formula in the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. That works out to an extra $87 per student that school systems can spend on textbooks, classroom supplies or other items.
While we certainly want our children to learn, we also want to make sure they - and the rest of Georgia's 9.5 million residents - are healthy.
We want to start our improvements in the medical care of Georgians at the most basic level: in the classrooms of our medical schools. We aspire to offer more opportunities for students to study medicine so we can build a better network of physicians to serve the state's needs.
We also want to improve our state's trauma network. While we in the Augusta area are extremely fortunate to have the services of the Medical College of Georgia, there are other parts of the state where quality trauma care is hours away. We also want to fund community health centers and increase the amount we spend on Peachcare so people are taking better care of themselves on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, we want to improve training and offer more competitive salaries for public safety officers. We want to develop a system of training and scale of pay for corrections and parole officers, state troopers, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and other public safety personnel that significantly reduces turnover and ensures the safety of our residents.
Finally, we are also committed to preserving and protecting Georgia's supplies of water. To accomplish this, we need to build new reservoirs and improve water treatment and delivery systems across the state.
As we continue the 2008 legislative session and look ahead to our priorities for 2009, I hope you will see much less acrimony and much more communication between politicians from both parties and both houses of the General Assembly.
That does not mean there will not be political and philosophical disagreements, as discussion and differences are essential to the legislative process. However, I do hope you will not see rock-throwing, mud-slinging and finger-pointing in political arguments. Such activities will only occupy our hands when they should be busy building a better Georgia.
I am humbled and honored to serve the people of Columbia County. We live in the best community in Georgia, one that I am proud for my family to call home. Thank you for your continued support and encouragement. Please contact me if I can be of any help to you or your family.
State Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, represents the 118th District in the Georgia House of Representatives.
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