Essig was one of the key speakers at the community-wide Parent Advisory Council meeting headed by Kelly Ullery, Floyd County Schools representative on State Superintendent John Barge’s PAC. Nearly 60 people attended the event at the Lindale Baptist Church’s Christian Life Center.
The meeting was held in response to the local uproar that surfaced as a result of the Floyd County Schools Reduction in Force plan that will eliminate 113 employees for next year, shaving more than $10 million from the local budget.
Tough tax talk
Essig said that education takes up more than half of the state budget, about 51 percent, with 39 percent spent on K-12 schooling.
Most of Georgia’s remaining finances go to Medicaid, the criminal justice system, debt service, transportation and human services. Essig said since the great recession of 2007, every piece of Georgia’s budget has seen hefty cuts in funding.
The education portion of the budget is funded based on the Quality Based Education funding formula, which is complicated, Essig said. He simplified it for Thursday’s crowd by saying a certain dollar amount goes to each student in each school.
“If we funded it the way the law says we should fund it, the funding formula right now would have $1 billion more than it currently does,” he said. “Over the last 10 years, and specifically the last five years, we haven’t been funding it the way we should be funding it. After the recession of 2007, we lost $3 to $4 billion in revenues … You can’t balance the budget without hitting education.”
He said Georgia is and has been among the lowest tax states in the country.
“If you look at it about six or seven different ways, per capita, percentage of income, looking at business taxes, we rank anywhere from 39 to 40, 40 to 49 and 50; we’re in the bottom 10,” he said.
A question taxpayers need to ask, he said, is whether or not there’s flexibility to raise revenues in smart ways that will keep Georgia economically competitive.
“Instead of being between 40th and 50th, how about 30th to 40th?” he said. “Then that would allow us to invest in education, transportation and other things.”
However, Essig said that if citizens push for keeping the tax system as is and even lowering tax rates, the cuts within school systems will be permanent.
HB 140 debate
Disgruntled sounds came from the crowd when Essig delved into the controversy behind the Tax Credit Scholarship Program and House Bill 140. Authored by Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, it allows Georgians to take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for a donation to a Student Scholarship Organization. The SSOs distribute the donations to eligible private schools as student scholarships.
“The way the credit was originally sold, it was supposed to be for low-income students in public schools,” Essig said. “There’s lots of controversy over whether that intent has been kept or not.”
He said there are currently $50 million worth of credits in the state budget, but HB 140 would increase that to $80 million with guaranteed annual increases.
“Part of the problem with the program is there’s no accountability, no transparency, no oversight — and the law makes it illegal to find out anything about the program and know who’s taking the credit and who’s benefiting from the credit,” he said.
Former state representative Barbara Massey Reece was present at the meeting and said it is more than likely HB 140 would pass in the House.
“It’s very evident HB 140 and the parent trigger bill (HB 123) will pass unless there’s public outcry, because both those bills are being sponsored by the leadership in the House,” she said.
Elizabeth Hooper, statewide research coordinator for EmpowerED, said part of the problem was that legislators are pushing funding for other forms of schooling, such as private and charter schools, home schooling and voucher programs, making public schools suffer.
“You can’t just let public education slowly decline until it’s broken, and that’s unfortunately what some of us feel is an agenda, and I think that is unacceptable,” she said.
By the end of the meeting, tempers were smoldering, but Ullery beseeched the crowd to channel that energy into contacting state legislators.
“My children ... are going to be affected by this,” she said. “And believe me, you will be too, whether you have children or not, our economy will suffer and things will not get better until you understand that you have a voice.”