It is amazing how 40 days can turn into nearly four months.
However, that's become the norm for Georgia legislators as we try to complete the business of this great state in just 40 days.
With the close of the 2008 legislative session, many of us breathed a sigh of relief. It was a long session, marked by the ups and downs that are inherent to politics.
In hindsight, I would like to focus on the positives from the session. We were able to dedicate more money to education, raise the pay of our wonderful public safety officers in hopes of making sure the citizens of this state will be protected, allocate $60 million for improving trauma care across the state and invest in economic development with direct incentives and tax cuts to keep Georgia growing and prosperous.
I am extremely proud of the focus we put on education during this session. Across the state our schools are flourishing, and we are doing it by spending fewer tax dollars per capita than nearly every other state. We rank 49th in the country in spending. Adjusted for inflation, Georgia is actually spending less per capita nowadays than in 1996. In other words, we are meeting the needs of our students and being fiscally responsible with taxpayer's money.
This year, we directed more money toward balancing funding formulas for local school systems while alleviating austerity cuts. We also made improvements to the retirement plan for public school employees, fully funded the Regents Formula and pushed more money into the state's Pre-K programs.
Near the top of the list, in my opinion, was the $70 million bond set aside to start the construction of a new dental school, the only one in the state. The school will serve to only strengthen Augusta's medical community, while ensuring an adequate supply of trained dentists to supply the entire state.
During this session, we also dedicated money to add eight new libraries to the PINES network for public libraries. This brings the total participants in the program to 265, just 20 shy of encompassing every library in the state. This means more access with a wider range of materials at the library in your hometown.
Another point of pride was the effort we placed on honoring the relatives of those killed or injured while protecting our freedom. I joined a coalition of members from both the House and Senate - including my fellow Columbia County legislator, Barry Fleming - to create scholarships for those 25 years of age or younger who are enrolled as full or part-time students at public or private colleges and universities in Georgia. We also expanded the effective dates for the HERO scholarships.
And we created a tax-free memorial fund for families who have lost loved ones as a result of a terrible tragedy while that person was attending school - an addition made in memory of Columbia County's Ryan Clark, who was killed last year at during the Virginia Tech horror.
As we move toward the 2009 session, the funding priorities the House of Representatives outlined earlier this year have not changed: Education, health care, public safety and natural resources are at the top.
Another issue to add to that list will be developing a plan for alleviating some of the tax burden on Georgians. We began that effort during this session with the Georgia House and Senate developing their own plan.
It was my hope that the two sides could develop a compromise plan. After all, both the House and Senate agree on the final destination - controlling spending, cutting taxes and creating jobs. We agree that tax relief for Georgians is a top priority. That's a grand goal for us to carry over to the 2009 session.
Please allow me to thank everyone for their input and support during the 2008 session. It is always great to hear from the people of District 118. I am proud and humbled to be their elected representative in Atlanta, and I look forward to continuing that role in the future.
State Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, represents the 118th District in the Georgia House of Representatives. He can be reached at 404-463-2247 or 706-869-1953, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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