Passage of Senate Bill 202 election restrictions dominated our work and performance in the 2021 session, and as a result many good efforts were left undone. I am already thinking about the 2022 session and work left on the table for legislation which should be passed but perhaps more importantly, budget decisions delayed or not even discussed.
In every year, the budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning on July 1 is the only required action for the Georgia General Assembly session. For the fiscal year 2022 budget detailed in House Bill 81, the economic impact of the COVID virus, the unknowable projections for state revenue, and the infusion of billions of dollars of CARES money plus $4.9 billion of Rescue Act money are significant and unique factors.
Since the governor alone directs the federal stimulus money from Congress (or so he claims), how do the 2022 state budget writers respond in the traditional appropriations format? I have been a member of the Appropriations Committee for more than two decades, half as a member of the majority party, and half in the minority. Never has there been an infusion of almost $10 billion of one-time federal money with significant discretion given to a governor to spend. It’s an unprecedented opportunity.
We have had little discussion in public about this budget infusion of almost $10 billion. And any budget decisions which may have been reached by the governor with or without Republican legislative leaders on spending of dollars is unknown to the public and the remaining General Assembly members.
Here are my questions for a public discussion and possible decision-making.
What is the impact of COVID on our 1.7 million Georgia schoolchildren in K through 12 from the virtual learning that has been the reality for over half of schoolchildren? If 20% of high schoolers drop out in a “normal” year, how many more will drop out based on COVID Zoom education? If between 20% and 40% of schoolchildren struggle in a normal year to stay on grade level, what research has been conducted to learn the best use of federal stimulus money to help them catch up?
And, what did we learn about the benefits of virtual learning for other children who have maintained grade level or progressed educationally? What is the COVID isolation mental health impact on children, and based on research, what mental health services must be provided?
What is the current state of our public health system based on CARES money that was spent through the multiple stimulus packages under the Trump administration? Where did it go, and how much of the 2020 CARES money is yet unspent? What data do we have of expenditure of this money to determine what worked and what did not?
With judges and other lawyers, I have discussed how the Rescue Act money can be used to address the statewide backlog of almost 100,000 criminal charges that have not been indicted or tried based on the Supreme Court Emergency Public Health Orders. Do we know how many alleged offenders are in jail unable to get a bond, or make any progress on their case to prove their possible innocence.
Without any additional financial help, counties and cities will be unable to address the backlog, and even with additional money and leadership, a comprehensive budget and plan is required. Again, what have we learned by the extensive use of virtual court hearings without the physical presence of counsel, parties, and judges? Has it worked without violation of constitutional rights?
On Sine Die evening, along with the vote on HB 81, the governor announced he is forming some committees to examine spending of the $4.9 billion from the Rescue Act funding on a few limited issues. I volunteer to serve on all these committees and attend to raise these questions directly, as well as many others to help maximize the benefits of an unprecedented infusion of $10 billion of pandemic money.
Georgians cannot afford to miss this unprecedented opportunity to spend federal dollars wisely.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributing writer, State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, represents District 82.