DAVE BELTON: Georgia’s outlook for 2018 positive
By Dave Belton
The signature event launching every new session of the General Assembly is the Eggs and Issues breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center. This year we heard the governor talk about his final year’s priorities, as well as his accomplishments over the past seven years.
For the fifth year in a row, Georgia was named the Best State in the Nation to do Business. Gov. Deal said we’ve added 650,000 jobs — an astounding 15 percent: so much growth that it’s no surprise we’ve moved from 10th to the eighth-largest population in the U.S. Our AAA bond rating (held for 20 years in a row) is second best in the nation, and we were one of only five states to keep a AAA status during the Great Recession. The HOPE Scholarship – still one of the most generous and best run lottery-driven scholarships in the nation – was saved under the governor’s watch, resulting in Georgia being one of only three states in the nation that has two universities ranked in the top 20. The HOPE Career Grant – serving technical degrees – has an outstanding 99 percent employment record for graduates … and is completely free for 17 career fields. Finally, Gov. Deal’s criminal justice and education programs have been ranked the best in the nation and are being copied by many states.
Twenty-seven state governments had to cut their budgets last year. Georgia’s income grew so much (without increasing taxes) that the House voted to cut our income tax instead. (Unfortunately, this bill has not yet reached the governor’s desk). Georgia is second lowest in the nation in per capita spending, third lowest in state debt, and second lowest in collections per capita.
The governor intends to work hard this year, stating, “There’s nothing lame about this duck.” He noted that more than half of the legislators he spoke to seven years ago are gone now, indicating a healthy turnover in the General Assembly. This year he wants the Senate to pass the Adoption Bill that the House approved last year. We’ll also be expanding the runways at the Morgan and Newton County airports. And, of course, Georgia is currently spending more money on roads than any other state. This is vital as Atlanta’s biggest strength is its role as a hub of transportation. Savannah is the fourth busiest port in the U.S., Atlanta is the busiest airport in the world, and the Atlanta metro has the eighth largest economy in the U.S.
On a more local note, I was pleased to bring the House Economic and Tourism Committee to Covington last week. (I brought the committee to Madison last year.) The purpose of the visit was to show the committee the successes we’ve had in the past few years, as well as to leverage further investment from the state.
Newton County experienced an amazing 7.8 percent job growth last year, far outpacing the national rate of 1.7 percent. Construction is also up: over $750 million of capital and 7,500 jobs have been added the past three years. Augusta had the most big-manufacturing projects at the Army Cyber-Headquarters at Fort Gordon, but Newton was right behind at No. 2 in the state. Shire is almost ready to sell its products, with a projected 1,700 jobs and $2.8 billion yearly impact. And of course, the Covington Towne Center projects and the million-square foot Three Ring Studios are now underway. When completed, Covington will host the largest film complex on the planet with office space to match.
Speaking of film, thanks to tax incentives and the governor’s ceaseless passion, Georgia is now the No. 1 location in the world to make movies at a yearly impact of $10 billion. (That figure was only $214 million a few years ago!) Of the last 20 top grossing films, 17 were made here. Even before Three Ring Studios, Covington – “The “Hollywood of the South” – produced $129 million in direct tourism impact, giving each Newton resident an effective tax relief of $248 that year. That is real money in the pockets of real citizens.
With all the jobs we’re creating, we must have an educated workforce to fill these positions. To meet this need, your General Assembly added $3.6 billion new dollars to education over the past few years. Back at home, Newton teachers are doing a great job with our young people. Graduation rates are up 12 points in Newton County, 83 percent overall compared to 79 percent in the state. Eastside High was at an eye-popping 90 percent! The Newton College and Career Academy has won several national awards, and Piedmont Tech just opened a new Advanced Manufacturing laboratory in Covington.
I admire the courage the county, cities, and chamber have shown to approve these big-ticket projects. I believe their strategy of intelligent, strategic, focused growth will continue to create the kind of community we can be proud of.