ATLANTA, Ga. - After years of being the belle of the ball, the focus on education reform and funding may take a back seat during the 2018 Legislative Session. The larger discussion will likely center on solving the state’s transportation woes and the issue of religious freedom and its impact on the state’s business climate.
That’s not to say schools will be left alone for the next 40 days, but few issues of widespread debate –such as academic reform or funding – have emerged in the early days of the session which began Jan. 8.
The consensus among legislators is this session may be relatively uneventful, especially with an election for a new governor less than 10 months away.
So what could come from the gold dome that may impact students and classrooms across the state?
Casino gambling to pay for college
Senate Bill 79 which failed to pass the Senate during the 2017 session will likely be re-introduced this session by its sponsor, Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta). Although Beach could not get the votes last session to move it out of committee he promised to bring it back this year. The bill would create two “destination resort casinos” in Georgia with some proceeds going to a number of educational concerns, including the state’s HOPE Scholarship, other state scholarships, grants and loans for college students.
Before SB 79 could take effect, Georgia voters would have to pass an amendment to the state constitution legalizing casinos. The debate over whether to allow casinos, even for lofty purposes like sending kids to college, promises to be a lively one this session.
House Resolution 319 would allow school systems to use proceeds from the one-cent Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) to pay for ongoing maintenance and operations for the district. Currently, tax revenues generated by ESPLOST can only be used for capital improvement projects aimed at education (new schools, renovations, technology upgrades, safety and security, etc.), and to retire any outstanding debt related to previous capital projects.
ESPLOSTs were authorized by the Georgia Legislature in 1996, and they require districts to go to the voters every five years to renew them. Since 1996, nearly all of Georgia’s 180 school systems have had an ESPLOST in place; 132 of them continuously over that time frame including the Fulton County School System. Early comments on the measure raise concerns that the state could cut funding to districts which have another way of funding these ongoing expenses.