ATHENS — In an address to state lawmakers Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal highlighted several economic accomplishments during his first two years in office and identified important areas going forward, especially improving Georgia's infrastructure.
Deal spoke during lunch on the last day of a three-day biennial training conference for lawmakers sponsored by the Carl Vinson Institute of the University of Georgia. Deal thanked members of the General Assembly who have served in the last two sessions since he took over as governor.
"You have been a very cooperative group, and as a result of that I think we have done some very positive things for the state of Georgia," Deal said, going on to list some goals he said he and the Legislature were able to accomplish together, including major tax changes, salvaging the HOPE scholarship program and a sweeping criminal justice overhaul.
Deal also touted other accomplishments: the state receiving a triple-A rating from all three major bond rating agencies; increasing the revenue shortfall reserve, the so-called rainy day fund, by 202 percent; attracting $8.9 billion in new capital investment and adding nearly 47,000 new jobs; and decreasing the unemployment rate by about two points since the height of the recession.
"While we are proud of those accomplishments, I think we all know ... that we have challenges that are yet to be met," Deal said.
Infrastructure growth and development must remain a top priority, he said. Many of the biggest projects — such as adding two reversible lanes to certain highways — are focused on the metro Atlanta area where a large portion of the state's population is concentrated. Reducing congestion is vital to continuing to attract businesses to the state, he said.
Another major infrastructure project Deal mentioned was the deepening of the Port of Savannah harbor and the river channel that leads to it. He plans to ask the Legislature for a bit more than $50 million in his upcoming budget proposal for that project and is also asking the state's congressional delegation to work on the federal government, he said. He said he expects dredging to begin next year and to take about three years to complete.
Deal also said education has to remain a high priority
"We have to do better. We owe it to our children, and we owe it to the future of this state to be better," Deal said, noting that the state ranked 44th in graduation rates using a new method of calculation.
Health care is also a major challenge, Deal said. The new federal health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, has direct costs to the state, including extra funds needed for mandatory screenings and the inclusion of children up to age 26 on their parents' health insurance, Deal said. Those direct costs added up to about $7 million in the fiscal year 2013 budget and will increase to about $42 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget, he said.
The legislative training conference held every two years in Athens aims to provide information, training and networking opportunities for both new and veteran lawmakers. This year it included information sessions on the budget, juvenile justice, job creation initiatives, and health care, among other topics.
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