By Kelly McCutchen
In a typical election year, legislators tend to adopt a “do-nothing” attitude lest they somehow offend potential voters. This year in Georgia could, and should, be different in order to take advantage of several transformative opportunities.
Georgia has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. This year offers an opportunity to implement reforms – proven in Texas and other states – to make our streets safer, change lives and save taxpayers money. Implementing more effective and less expensive sanctions for non-violent offenders, including treatment for drug addition and mental health issues, could save taxpayers more than $250 million.
Eight states are currently considering significant income tax cuts. Last year, the tax reform council appointed by the Legislature recommended a 33 percent reduction in Georgia’s top personal income tax rate to enhance the state’s economic competitiveness and establish a better environment for job creation and innovation. This would help small businesses and help working families by lowering the tax burden on work, savings and investment.
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The rising cost of health care and the fear of losing health insurance is a top concern for too many families. Georgia has an opportunity to address both.
The medical liability tort system isn’t working. Surveys estimate that “defensive” medicine — unnecessary tests and procedures ordered by health care providers to protect themselves from lawsuits – is responsible for at least 26 percent of all health care costs each year. Sadly, all of this spending has not reduced the risk of medical injury due to physician negligence. That’s at the same level today as it was 30 years ago. Worse, only 20 percent of the victims of malpractice win awards, often leaving the poor and minorities without compensation.
Georgia could be a national leader by eliminating defensive medicine costs and improving patient safety. The state can replace its medical malpractice tort system with a Patients’ Compensation System. The Foundation outlined how in a recent study: Victims would be compensated sooner and reporting of medical errors could incentivize best practices and higher quality care. The General Assembly should appoint a study committee to seriously review this concept before the next session.
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the federal health care law – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Georgia should be prepared with market-based alternatives. One area with immediate impact is tax equity. Georgians who work in jobs where employers do not offer health insurance are unfairly penalized; they have to pay for an individual health insurance policy with after-tax dollars. One proposal would clarify current regulations and utilize existing approaches such as Health Savings Accounts and Health Reimbursement Accounts to reduce or eliminate federal and state taxes for anyone in these circumstances. The result would be significantly lower-priced health insurance and employees would have access to insurance that that would go with them if they change jobs.
A quality education is critically important to Georgians’ future. It is the great opportunity equalizer for the poor and disadvantaged. Technology is poised to fundamentally transform education over the next decade. Just within the last few months, for example, both Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they will begin placing their classes online for free. Primary and secondary education is not far behind; Georgia can be a leader.
Amending Georgia’s Constitution to create a state authorizer for virtual schools avoids the complicated process of gaining the approval in 180 separate school systems. Realistic, reliable funding will attract high-quality providers from across the nation and perhaps the world. An online curriculum can benefit existing brick-and-mortar schools as well as specialized dropout prevention programs tailored to each student’s needs. Other legislation could enable high school students, beginning in 10th grade, to take dual-credit online college classes without leaving high school. Imagine paying tuition for a child on the three-year college plan as opposed to the five-year plan.
A proposed statewide clearinghouse would give every Georgia student to access high quality online classes, such as the classes provided by Gwinnett County’s virtual school. What if every child in Georgia had access to a Gwinnett County quality education?
Georgians shouldn’t be hearing how states like Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas are rolling out innovative programs and reforms. The state has a great opportunity to lead, not lag, through innovation this year if legislators reject the forces of status quo bottling up great ideas. Will Georgia’s leaders play it safe or will they lead?