Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lesson for legislators: Don't forget the children
by Pat Willis
Georgia Online News Service

After a year of rising unemployment, a housing market crash, credit crisis and diminishing tax revenue, it's hard to imagine that anyone was sad to see 2008 go.

Georgia, like other states, begins a new year with budget woes that could mean deep cuts in vital programs and services. There's no way around it. But it's important in these tough times to maintain a solid foundation for future growth when the economy improves.

President Barack Obama and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue have outlined bold economic stimulus packages that include large-scale spending on infrastructure. Given the current global outlook, these are important moves to create jobs. But how can we, as a country and a state, make this long-term debt pay off for future generations?

If a healthy portion of the spending is devoted to strategic investments in our children, we could set in motion an economic stimulus that will benefit Georgians for decades to come.

Even in the best of times, Georgia's children haven't fared well. Their health, education, safety and employment prospects consistently rate among the lowest in the country. Georgia ranked 40th in meeting its children's needs, according to the 2008 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

That ranking doesn't bode well for Georgia's economic growth. But we can do a better job of preparing for the future if consumers, educators, business leaders, clergy and legislators step up for our children. Let's take a look at what a stimulus package might look like in terms of priorities:

Education: Pre-Kindergarten builds a foundation for higher educational achievement, which in turn creates higher earning potential. President Obama's recent proposal for a $10 billion investment in early learning is a significant leap of faith, but it remains to be seen how that program will be implemented.

Georgia's lottery-funded Pre-K program hasn't met its original promise to 4-year olds. Thousands of children are on waiting lists for available slots. Using the economic stimulus package to build quality Pre-K centers will increase enrollment.

Child care: With about 300,000 Georgia mothers of children under 6 in the workforce and 14,000 families on waiting lists for child care subsidies, how can we expect a productive, reliable workforce? We should invest in high-quality child care programs, which will allow more parents to work and pay taxes.

Child abuse prevention: Georgia's children must be safe, especially in their own homes. Yet, 50 percent of Georgia's abuse and neglect cases, close to 20,000 cases in 2005, involve children 6 years old or younger. Increasedc funding for home visitation and other forms of family support could greatly ameliorate this problem, save child welfare dollars down the road, and help families become more self-sufficient.

Health: Studies show accessible, consistent medical care helps kids grow up to be healthy, productive adults. But about 300,000 Georgia children are uninsured and vulnerable. Access to and the quality of health care for Georgia's young ranks in the bottom third of states nationally. Worse yet, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), "PeachCare for Kids", which is designed to insure children in working families who don't have medical insurance, is at risk of losing its funding in March if congress or the state don't act quickly to appropriate more money

These are some of the most pressing needs that will cost the state more in the long term if we do nothing. We need to be smart. If our governments are committed to spending hundreds of billions of tax dollars on infrastructure to stimulate the economy, why don't we demand that they look beyond roads and bridges?

After all, children make up the foundation - the infrastructure - of our society's future prospects that can be the highway for global competitiveness and economic growth. We can't afford to panic now. Let's stimulate the economy and, at the same time, stimulate prospects for our kids with smart investment.

Pat Willis is executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. Have you done your daily dose of sinning? If so, those guilty pleasures are likely to come back and slap you – in the pocketbook. Actually, as veteran political reporter Kris Jensen tells us in his report for the Georgia Online News Service, if the state would get serious about taxing the seven deadly sins, it could do a lot to ease the budget crunch.

Meanwhile, GONSO business writer Jeanne Bonner says Georgia's businesses are lining up at the Gold Dome to be heard. At the top of the business agenda are predictable concerns over crises such as transportation and water – but other groups, such as the beleaguered homebuilders, are also clamoring for relief.

Finally, Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, has a message for the Legislature: Don't forget the kids.

Do you like what you're seeing from the Georgia Online News Service? Send us your comments, rants and story ideas. Do you need something covered in your community? We're listening, so give us a call at 800-891-3459 or write me at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org.

John F. Sugg, Executive Editor


Today's GONSO

A sure(hell)-fire way to raise state funds? Tax all 7 Deadly Sins

by K. Patrick Jensen
COMMENTARY/HUMOR

The "wages of sin" don't pay too badly in Georgia, where tobacco, liquor and the lottery contribute millions of dollars to fund state operations in bad and good economic times.

Faced with a $2 billion-ish budget shortfall, legislators are thinking of new ways to raise public revenues from private actions. And Georgia certainly isn't alone. Cash-strapped legislatures nationwide are looking at "sin taxes" for some revenue, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Full Story

Transportation top concern for business community

by Jeanne Bonner
Solving the state's transportation woes is business leaders' top priority for the 2009 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly that reconvened this week.

Business officials say the problem goes beyond congestion in metro Atlanta, which affects the coastal cargo ports and everything in between. The lack of a comprehensive transportation solution is undermining efforts to lure companies to Georgia, they say, and hampering the ability of existing firms to move goods around the state and attract employees.

But transportation is one of the few large issues affecting business expected to advance this session. The state's dire financial straits should prevent more ambitious legislation. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Georgia Senate proposed transportation bills this week that would hinge on a sales tax to fund road, bridge and transit projects.

Full Story

Lesson for legislators: Don't forget the children

by Pat Willis
After a year of rising unemployment, a housing market crash, credit crisis and diminishing tax revenue, it's hard to imagine that anyone was sad to see 2008 go.

Georgia, like other states, begins a new year with budget woes that could mean deep cuts in vital programs and services. There's no way around it. But it's important in these tough times to maintain a solid foundation for future growth when the economy improves.

Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
The high price of cheap gasoline
by Tex Pitfield
Plan for best use of Chattahoochee’s water is criticized
by Maggie Lee
State parks have "great value" – but not to budget writers
by Wendy Parker

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