Deal’s State of the State address: Georgia will ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative’

January 11, 2017

Lt. Gov. Cagle, Speaker Ralston, President Pro Tem Shafer, Speaker Pro Tem Jones, members of the General Assembly, constitutional officers, members of the judiciary, members of the consular corps, my fellow Georgians: 

In 1944, Georgia’s own Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for a song titled “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive.” The most memorable lines from that song are: “You've got to accentuate the positive/ Eliminate the negative/ Latch on to the affirmative/ Don't mess with Mister In-Between.”

That was great advice for our nation as World War II was drawing to a close and it is great advice for us today. For the past six years, I have reported to you on the State of the State and I do so again today.

That first year, 2011, I was just entering office as your governor. Our state was still in the grip of the Great Recession. Businesses were going bankrupt, homes were being foreclosed upon, jobs were being lost, our unemployment rate was 10.4 percent. Our rainy day fund was dangerously low at roughly $116 million – hardly enough to operate state government for two days.

Some states that were facing similar circumstances resorted to raising taxes on their citizens. With your support, Georgia did not do that. Instead, without knowing it, we followed Johnny Mercer’s advice from other verses of his song which said: “You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum/ Bring gloom down to the minimum/ Have faith or pandemonium’s liable to walk upon the scene.”

The result: that 10.4 percent unemployment rate has dropped to 5.3 percent. Our Rainy Day Fund has increased to approximately $2.033 billion. With prudent budgeting, we have maintained a AAA bond rating. We have set new records in trade, film production and tourism.

We have laid the groundwork to improve our transportation infrastructure dramatically over the next 10 years. We have made our communities safer and offered hope to those with addiction or behavioral disabilities through our accountability courts. We have reduced the rate of recidivism and saved the taxpayers of Georgia millions of dollars, a great example of eliminating the negative. New private sector jobs have reached more than 575,000 and for four consecutive years, Georgia has been named the best state for business.

Why did this happen? Because we had faith and we accentuated the positive.

So, this year, the budget and the legislation I bring to you will continue to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

The budget for FY2018 is based on projected revenue growth of 3.6 percent over the amended FY2017 budget. It will allow us to sustain the important programs that are currently in place as well as address new areas that require attention.

In September of this past year, we had a prime opportunity to accentuate the positive by announcing a 20 percent pay raise for state-level law enforcement. These brave men and women don a badge and vest each day as they go to face uncertainty on their shifts in service of their fellow citizens. They protect our lives and property, and it is only fitting that they should be paid a competitive salary.

I am told that in the month following this announcement, Georgia State Patrol had more trooper applications than in the entire previous year. That’s a good example of latching onto the affirmative.

I received a letter from the wife of a state trooper who told me just how much that announcement meant to her and her loved ones. She told me that her husband worked three jobs to make ends meet for their family, and because of that, he wasn’t able to go to their children’s ball games. Now that the raises have taken effect, no longer does he have to miss those special moments with his children that can never be recaptured.

The second component of that law enforcement improvement announcement was an expansion of training on deescalating violence, community policing and alternatives to deadly force as well as providing access to local law enforcement for Crisis Intervention Training, which provides instruction on how to safely handle situations involving those with mental impairment.

Selfless public service and dedication are not confined to any one agency of state government. They are replete in our state workforce, including the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS).

Like the story of Michelle Dorris, who is with us today. She is a DFCS case manager in South Georgia who was recently assigned to a home with an ailing infant. Upon further examination, Ms. Dorris found the child to be in distress and immediately arranged a medical visit. The appointment was 35 miles away and when it became clear that transportation was an issue, Ms. Dorris offered to drive the family to the doctor’s office. On the way to the appointment, the infant began to aspirate and stopped breathing. Ms. Dorris stopped the car, tended to the child, cleared her airway and began performing CPR until paramedics arrived on the scene.

The infant then thrived in the hospital, and later in a foster home, with the appropriate care and nutrition. I am happy to say that she has no lasting physical issues from her difficult beginning in life, and even more importantly, she still has life because of the actions of Ms. Dorris and her fellow DFCS colleagues.

Ms. Dorris, we owe your team our thanks and recognition. Would you please stand?

This is the type of meaningful impact caseworkers have on those they serve. These are the types of challenges that they face. In light of that fact, my budget proposal includes, on average, a 19 percent pay raise for DFCS caseworkers so that we can both ensure a competitive salary for those who fill these vital roles and so that we can recruit and retain the best possible candidates to look after the safety of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

That same desire to attract and retain quality public servants extends throughout the state workforce, which is why I recommended and this legislative body approved a 3 percent allocation for a merit, recruitment and retention pay increase for state employees last year. My FY2018 budget proposal also accentuates this positive with another increase of a 2 percent allocation.

With these improvements, we aim to serve Georgia’s citizens more efficiently and effectively. Our efforts to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive do not stop there, however. We will soon complete the three-year plan to bring Georgia’s physician reimbursement rates in line with Medicare rates. I would point out that we are not mandated to do so, but have chosen to take these steps because we want the best quality of health care for our citizens. Without adequate funding for our physicians, we will not be able to maintain the proper quality of providers in our Medicaid program.

In keeping with the desire to meet the health care needs of Georgians, I will work with the members of this legislature to enhance Medicaid and State Health Benefit Plan coverage for treatments of those diagnosed with autism up to the age of 21. I want to thank Senate Chairman Renee Unterman, House Chairman Sharon Cooper and House Subcommittee Chairman Katie Dempsey for working with us to ensure that we move forward in the proper manner on this issue as we take a deliberate and meaningful approach to this matter that touches so many hearts.

I’d also like to thank Chairman Stephanie Blank and her fellow members of the Child Welfare Reform Council who have so ably advocated for an expansion of behavioral and mental health coverage for children between birth and the age of four. Currently, community behavioral health services are offered only to Medicaid and PeachCare members age four and up. Because of their diligent work in educating us on the importance of early examination and treatment, my budget proposal includes roughly $2.5 million dollars, dedicated to covering the full child population of Medicaid and PeachCare for children with behavioral and mental health issues.

Stephanie Blank is with us today, and we want to thank you and the members of the Child Welfare Reform Council for your good work. Will you please stand?

I am also asking that this legislature remove barriers to mental health services for our veterans. There are approximately 61,288 active military personnel, 27,233 reservists and 752,000 veterans currently in Georgia. They have given of themselves to protect us. It is only fitting that we should protect them in kind.

Nearly one in four active duty military members show signs of some mental health condition. In light of this, the budget proposal I will submit to you includes funding to train existing employees on services provided by the state and federal governments to better serve our veterans. I have also allocated for a Women Veterans Coordinator position who will work with female veterans that have suffered military sexual trauma, offering counseling and assistance with veteran’s claims and appeals.

These measures will complement the $3 million in bonds included in the current fiscal year budget for a sub-acute rehabilitation facility which will provide behavioral health services to veterans who have traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. An additional $3 million in bonds is included in my budget proposal for next fiscal year to fully fund the construction cost of this facility.

During this session, you will have yet another opportunity to accentuate the positive in regards to the hospital Medicaid financing program, more commonly known as the hospital provider fee. Three years ago, the General Assembly granted the Department of Community Health Board the authority to continue to collect this fee. As you may know, this authority will sunset this year unless this body takes action. If we fail to act, we will not be eliminating the negative, we will be inviting it.

The Medicaid program for our state in the next fiscal year’s budget will cost over $10.5 billion. That translates into more than $1,020 in tax per person in Georgia. One of the funding sources for our Medicaid program comes from the fee paid for by hospitals, amounting to roughly $311 million annually. That is money the state uses to leverage over $600 million from the federal government. This authority will expire unless you reauthorize the DCH board to collect it. If that authority is not renewed, the more than $900 million dollars now available to us for the Medicaid program will have to be made up elsewhere in our allocations. Therefore, I encourage you to reauthorize the authority expeditiously so that we do not have to take away from other portions of the budget.

While we are on the subject of federal mandates, I want to take a moment to caution against taking giant leaps on healthcare policy until we know what Congress and the incoming administration will do. We are very fortunate that former Georgia state senator and Congressman Tom Price is nominated to become the Health and Human Services secretary. Hopefully very soon, the authority to make decisions regarding our state Medicaid program and how to design it in such a way that best fits the needs of our citizens will be returned to Georgia.

While these and other issues in the healthcare arena are determined by federal policy, there are those issues that we have influence over on the state level. One such area of vital concern is an ongoing epidemic that ravages the hearts and minds of not only individuals, but also the communities that they touch. It is an epidemic that hides in plain sight and ensnares its victims without regard to age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, neighborhood or station in life. I am referring to the opioid addiction epidemic.

To address this painful reality with which communities of all nature must now contend, last month I signed an executive order directing the Department of Public Health to issue a standing order to allow naloxone, an emergency drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, to be dispensed over-the-counter by pharmacists across the state. I also requested that the Georgia Board of Pharmacy approve an emergency rule removing naloxone from the dangerous drug list and reclassifying it as a Schedule V exempt drug. They quickly fulfilled this request, and because of that action, lives have already been saved.

During this session, I ask that we not only codify into law the provisions of my executive order, but that we also strengthen our prescription drug monitoring program and ensure healthcare providers of all types are more educated on the dangers of these powerful drugs.

Yet another area where we have endeavored to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative is education. Our graduation rate, for example, has gone from 67.4 percent in 2011 to 79.2 percent today – a significant improvement that shows we’re headed in the right direction. I do not need to tell you how much we owe to the educators that have made such progress possible. Those who are on the frontlines of this field, who mold young minds every day in the classroom and who answer such a challenging calling are the “everyday heroes” that a successful society requires.

As the husband and son of former educators, I know the impact such champions of knowledge have on the lives they reach, but I think it would be better for you to hear from an actual teacher. Please direct your attention to this video featuring Rep. Amy Carter, who will tell us just what it means to be an educator.

Thank you, Rep. Carter, for chairing our Teacher Advisory Committee and for your continued leadership on education matters.

That is the quality of a person who chooses to spend a career imparting knowledge to the next generation. That is what an architect of our future looks like. That is an example of the generous and selfless character that we find in so many classrooms across our state.

In recognition of the crucial roles that they play and the difficult challenges they face in the course of their work, my budget proposal for this upcoming fiscal year includes a 2 percent salary increase built into the pay scale for all authorized state teacher positions. This is in addition to the three percent merit pay increase included in this current fiscal year’s budget.

As our educators accentuate the positives in our children and eliminate the negatives, we should latch onto the affirmative and reward them for that invaluable service. As we do so, we should also seek to eliminate whatever systemic negatives are preventing students and teachers alike from realizing their full potential.

Currently, the greatest negative in the education landscape of Georgia is the number of children trapped in failing schools. Two years ago, there were 127 chronically failing schools with roughly 68,000 enrolled students. Now that we have the data from the last school year, we find that there were 153 schools that had a failing score for three consecutive years. Those 153 chronically underperforming schools served almost 89,000 students last school year – over 20,000 more students than we spoke of last fall. Almost 70 percent of the chronically failing schools – 106 to be exact – serve elementary students.

It should be abundantly clear to everyone, including those in the education community who so staunchly support the status quo, that this is unacceptable. If this pattern of escalation in the number of failing schools does not change, its devastating effects on our state will grow with each passing school year.

Since the vast majority of those chronically failing schools serve elementary-aged children, our proposals for addressing this issue will place an emphasis on elementary schools. If we can reverse this alarming trend early on, if we can eliminate this negative that directly or indirectly impacts all of us, then our reading comprehension scores, math skills, graduation rates and the quality of our workforce will all improve considerably.

To that end, my office is working closely with Lt. Gov. Cagle, Speaker Ralston, House Chairman Brooks Coleman, Rep. Kevin Tanner, Senate Chairman Lindsey Tippins, Sen. Freddie Powell Sims and others to craft legislation that will be presented to you this session. I want to thank them for their efforts to remove this negative so that our children’s futures will be brighter, our state’s economic prospects more sure and our global reputation all the more notable.

For those who will contend that the real issue is lack of resources, let me remind them that we have increased K-12 spending by $2.017 billion dollars over the last four years, which includes my fiscal year FY18 proposal. That translates into roughly 50 percent of all new growth in state revenue being dedicated to K-12 public education.

It is not enough to pour more and more money on a problem in hopes that it will go away. By addressing this negative, the students of today will be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow – jobs that are already on their way to our communities.

In 2013, the U.S. Army announced that it would build a new cyber command headquarters alongside the National Security Agency facilities at Fort Gordon in Augusta. Less than two months ago, military officials broke ground on those future headquarters that will cost $2 billion.

I am pleased to have as my guests in the gallery, Major General John B. Morrison Jr., and Command Sergeant Major Carlos Simmons of the Army Cyber Center of Excellence. We also have Col. Thomas E. Toler, Commander of the National Security Agency-Georgia, and Deputy Commander Brian Goodman.

Gentlemen, we thank you for your service. Will you please stand?

Fort Gordon is already home to the Cyber Center of Excellence, a training facility for cyberspace operations. And soon, we will begin construction on another tool in our arsenal for security and economic development in the form of the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center.

My proposed budget includes $50 million for this state-owned facility, designed to promote modernization in cybersecurity technology for both private and public industries. In conjunction with the Department of Defense and the NSA, this invaluable resource will put Georgia at the pinnacle of efforts to enhance American cybersecurity in the public and private arenas with a resource unlike any other in the country. This will solidify Georgia’s reputation as the Silicon Valley of the South.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the other partners involved in this endeavor: the Georgia National Guard, Department of Defense, Georgia Technology Authority, our Technical College and University systems, the Department of Economic Development, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and numerous private sector entities.

We will work together to ensure that this facility is an effective education and training center from which all manner of state, local and private organizations can benefit. This initiative will be housed within our Georgia Technology Authority and will, in part, serve as an incubator for startup companies, adding yet another tool for the Department of Economic Development to attract businesses to Georgia. We will also focus on research and development, tapping into the assets of our research universities and other institutions of higher learning.

Finally, we will create a cybercrime lab run by GBI as we work with all state agencies and local governments to ensure that our citizens, employers and their digital information are protected.

This is a statewide initiative, one that will bring together all manner of public and private organizations to further our defense capabilities in a digital age. It will involve financial institutions, public utilities, healthcare providers, banking systems, software development companies, manufacturers and any other entity with a cyber infrastructure. According to a recent white paper on this subject, roughly 90 percent of businesses are vulnerable to at least one security breach, making a cyberattack in effect inevitable. Georgia currently has over 290,000 establishments across 42 major industries, and all are vested in cybersecurity in some way or can be considered cyber businesses in one form or another.

With the Cyber Innovation and Training Center joining our already impressive array of cyber and technological facilities, Georgia will truly be at the forefront of an issue that we see more and more on the front pages of our newspapers and the nightly news reports.

As we enter this new year of 2017 and this session of the Georgia General Assembly, I invite you to join with me as we continue to follow Johnny Mercer’s advice from 72 years ago and accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and not waste time and resources messing with Mr. In-Between!