ATLANTA - Gov. Nathan Deal says the state of Georgia is in "excellent" shape as the result of "hard work and sacrifice."
Deal made the comments during his annual state of the State of the State speech at the Georgia Capitol on Wednesday.
The governor also proposed a nearly $547 million increase in state education funding when he submits his budget proposal to state lawmakers.
“My proposal represents the largest single year increase in K-12 funding in seven years. That's an additional $547 million, an increase of over half a billion dollars in one year for our local school systems," Deal said.
A large increase in education funding was expected amid growing state revenues and concerns that more than half of Georgia's school districts were not meeting a state minimum of 180 school days due to budget cuts.
Earlier Wednesday, Deal said he would add $12 million to the state budget to boost "life flights" in southwest Georgia.
Deal said state education funding will total nearly $8 billion, allowing schools to restore instructional days, eliminate furloughs and boost teacher pay.
He said during his administration, funding for education has increased by $930 million.
Deal has held firm on his stance of not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He pointed out that every Georgian already spends $1,000 each year on Peachcare and Medicaid through state and federal taxes. He said that's why Georgia cannot afford an expansion.
Deal also pledged to keep Georgia's tax burden low, saying "we will not allow ourselves to be coerced" into Medicaid expansion.
Deal, a Republican up for re-election this year, has faced early criticism from his challengers over the state's education funding in recent years.
State Sen. Jason Carter, the sole Democrat running for governor responded to Deal’s speech.
Carter said the single biggest failure of Georgia's current leadership - and the biggest drain on the state's economy - is the dismantling of the state's education system. Carter, who is running to replace Deal as governor, said he believes in creating a strong climate for business, but that is not possible with policies that leave the middle class and small business behind.
"Governor Deal says Georgia today is, 'at the pinnacle.' He is bursting with pride that a single magazine rated Georgia the best place to do business." Carter said. "You can't tell that to the 363,000 Georgians still looking for work. Our state ranks 40th in the nation in its unemployment rate. Georgia is not at its pinnacle."
Carter said the failure to prioritize education spending is among the primary reasons for Georgia's lackluster economy. He said the U.S. Department of Education has ranked the state fourth worst in high school graduation rates and added that almost three-quarters of our school districts have stopped teaching students the full 180 days per year.
Carter proposed a new approach to prioritizing education to grow the state's economy by creating a separate education budget. Under Carter's plan, every year the legislature would be forced to consider the state budget in two parts. Once the education budget has been approved, state elected officials would then consider the funding of the rest of the government.
"Today, our education budget is a shell game. A separate education fund will make our investment in education the state's top priority. To me, setting out clear priorities for how our money gets spent - and living by them - is what it means to be a fiscal conservative," said Carter.
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