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Education gets lion’s share of budget

POSTED: February 27, 2014 5:17 p.m.

The return of spring-like weather allowed state legislators to reconvene at our state’s Capitol for a productive week of considering some important legislation. Primarily, the state’s budget was carefully considered under House Bill 744. This is a $20.8 billion state budget plan for fiscal year 2015 beginning July 1, 2014. Of that budget, 54.1 percent of state revenues are designated for education.

Health and human services agencies are authorized to receive 23.1 percent of available funds, and 8.4 percent of revenues are allocated for public safety agencies and the courts. The budget passed overwhelmingly in the House. It is significant to note that the budget was trimmed down because of the economy in recent years and much of the fat was eliminated. Education was also cut so that the budget could be met and some of that money was added back this year in order for local school systems to remain financially viable and to permit all of the school systems in the state to discontinue furloughs and to return to a full 180 days of classroom instruction per year.

Still, this budget is a streamlined and effective one that provides for the needs of our state without excessive non-essential spending that legislators and voters alike would consider “pork” or unnecessary special projects. It has always been my goal to run the state just as conscientiously as you and I would run our homes — by watching every dollar and not living beyond our means. I supported this budget and I support running the state in a fiscally responsible manner.

Several House and Senate bills and resolutions were also passed calling for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to deal with our national debt by balancing the federal budget. Our country is now over $17 trillion in debt and the Georgia House of Representatives felt it was necessary to take a clear statement in support of fiscal responsibility in government — we practice it in our state, and it is high time Washington did as well. The individual debt of each taxpayer in our country is currently $150,095 and growing every day. Is it fair for us to saddle our children and grandchildren future with a debt they will never be able to overcome? I think not!

We also considered and passed HB 875, which is called the Safe Carry Protection Act. This bill expands the places where legally-licensed gun owners can carry their weapons, including places of worship and non-restricted areas of airports in our state.

As always, the constitutional provisions of private property rights still prevail. What that means is that the owner of any property has control over that property and can authorize or reject the right to carry weapons on their property. That includes churches. It will be up to each church and its governing body to determine whether or not they permit firearms in their respective house of worship. During committee hearings, the Southern Baptist Association advocated for that position and it was adopted.

In addition, this bill offers local boards of education an additional option to ensure that our students are adequately protected at school. Boards of education can choose to arm certain school personnel who have received the required firearms training as stipulated by this bill. I think this is a sound piece of legislation that allows legal gun owners their right to bear arms while still maintaining the careful protection and consideration of our children in our schools. The bill now moves to the Senate for their consideration.

Many of you are carefully planning for your children’s educational future and are considering how to pay for a college education. This week, we passed HB 697, which redefines the qualifications for the HOPE scholarship. This bill defines a “Zell Miller Grant Scholar” as a student who meets the requirements to receive a HOPE grant and earns at least a 3.5 cumulative GPA at the end of any semester or quarter. Under this bill, if a student meets these requirements, the student will be awarded the difference between the awarded HOPE amount and the then-current academic year standard undergraduate tuition at the institution to be paid. I believe the HOPE scholarship program is an exceptional option for outstanding students and I am proud to support it.

On the morning of Feb. 19, I introduced Mr. Jim Chavers of Chatham County to the House for an invite resolution. Exactly 69 years ago on that very date, Mr. Chavers was one of approximately 40,000 Marines who assaulted a small island in the Pacific that very few in the world had ever heard of, but after a horrific 36-day battle, with 22,000 Japanese casualties and 27,000 Marine casualties, the island of Iwo Jima became known worldwide. Mr. Chavers observed the iconic raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi made famous by a photograph by Joe Rosenthal, which became a unifying symbol of our country’s resolve to win the war.  Mr. Chavers received a standing ovation after I introduced him, and again after he spoke for a few minutes about his 36 days on Iwo Jima. There were several folks with tears in their eyes as they realized what some of those in our “Greatest Generation” had contributed in order to preserve our freedoms.

Afterward, I believe all of the 180 members of the House and many of the staff personnel in the Capitol waited in a long line to have their picture made with this 91-year-old hero. It warmed the heart of this old Marine Vietnam veteran during the ceremony and again afterward when Mr. Chavers told me that was the nicest he had ever been treated in his life. It was a good day!

Please let me know if I can be of assistance to you, as we consider legislation that affects your family’s finances, freedoms, and future. I can be reached at (404) 656-0178 or by email at bill.hitchens@house.ga.gov. My mailing address at the State Capitol is 501 Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334.

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