By Guest Columnist TAIFA S. BUTLER, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute
You’ve no doubt heard many times Georgia is the No. 1 place to do business, but what if the state can also be the top place to settle and raise a family? That is the audacious vision the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute unveiled at its Jan. 25 policy conference under the banner “People-Powered Prosperity.”
Georgia needs a people-first strategy to build a stronger, more inclusive economy.
Georgia’s long employed a business-first approach to the economy, defined by corporate tax breaks, lax regulations and low wages. But what Georgia needs for a stronger and fairer economy is a people-first strategy focused on four strategic goals: Educated youth, skilled workers, thriving families and healthy communities.
Beefing up Georgia’s public schools and improving access to adult workforce training are recurring priorities on the wish lists of business leaders. A workforce able to compete in the 21st century needs a constant supply of young people on track to become self-sufficient contributors to society.
At the same time, Georgia needs financially strong families to fuel economies in communities across the state. And, of course, to achieve these aspirations Georgians need to be healthy so they can arrive at school ready to learn or at their job ready to work.
Sure, a case can be made Georgia fares well by some financial measures. The state’s economy is adding jobs faster than many other states and the stability of Georgia’s fiscal house is the envy of some states that created shortfalls by imprudently slashing taxes.
Still, Georgia falls short of its true economic potential. Nearly one in four Georgia children lives in poverty, where many face under-resourced schools and endure hunger and other home challenges. Families at all income levels struggle with sky-high college and child care costs, making it harder to get ahead. Georgia’s rural communities are struggling with an exodus of people and an influx of opioids, while many urban neighborhoods face steep structural barriers to opportunity.
Enter our “People-Powered Prosperity,” a blueprint for a $1 billion investment in Georgia’s people. Georgia lawmakers embraced raising revenue for a more than $1 billion annual investment in the state’s transportation network with a new tax plan in 2015. And reports say the state is prepared to open the treasury and hand more than $1 billion in tax breaks to lure Amazon’s second headquarters.
Officials justify both of those $1 billion investments with faith that Georgia’s return on investment will exceed the cost. The $1 billion investment in Georgia’s people we propose is based on a similar premise. The difference is the “People-Powered Prosperity” plan is for a more direct investment in the development of Georgia’s people, based on eight pillars, or strategies:
- Update Georgia’s K-12 funding formula to match today’s rigorous standards. The 1985 formula is far out of date and lawmakers last fully funded the amount it calls for in 2002.
- Give school districts the ability to invest in proven solutions. More than 60 percent of Georgia’s public-school students live in poverty. A local approach stands the best chance to offset that.
- Create need-based aid options to make college more affordable and technical schools free. Georgia’s goal of 250,000 new graduates by 2025 is reachable if more students can afford classes.
- Increase funding for adult education, language literacy and skills training. State support for programs that help people learn new job skills can improve people’s long-term prospects.
- Make child care more affordable for working parents. Georgia’s Childcare and Parent Services program assists with care of 54,000 low-income children weekly. The need is likely 623,000.
- Create a Georgia Work Credit. A state-level Earned Income Tax Credit set at 10 percent of the federal version can provide eligible families a bottom-up tax cut of as much as $630 a year.
- Expand access to health care. Expanding Medicaid as most other states did can provide coverage to about 148,000 Georgians in working families and creates 56,000 jobs a year.
- Invest in mental health and substance abuse treatment. Pre-arrest diversion for nonviolent drug offenders, early prevention programs and new housing services can improve their productivity.
The costs of these investments are detailed in “People-Powered Prosperity” and range from the $40 million it takes to make Georgia’s technical colleges free to the $500 million required to make child care accessible to the people who need it.
At this point you are no doubt wondering how the state will come up with that kind of money.
Each year, Georgia foregoes hundreds of millions of dollars through various credits and exemptions for private companies that are rarely reviewed for effectiveness. Adding a new minimum tax set at $1,000 per corporation could generate about $250 million a year for people-first investments. Hiking the state’s cigarette tax by $1 per pack can raise more than $400 million a year, a logical way to help pay for Medicaid expansion.
These are just a few options among many good choices. It is admittedly bold. Most importantly, it’s an investment in opportunity for Georgia’s people with a predictable return that can’t be missed.
Note to readers: The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute is an Atlanta-based non-profit that focuses its research on education, health care, safety net, budget and taxes, jobs and the economy.