Tomorrow marks the first day of the 2015-2016 legislative session, and I couldn’t be more excited to get back to the Gold Dome. During the last two years, we have made significant progress for our state. In 2013, we eliminated red tape to allow for a grocery store in downtown areas like Athens. This secures access to healthy food for families living in or near downtown, an important concern as our local officials consider the future of downtown development. Last year, we provided relief to organizations that promote access to affordable housing by joining all 49 other states in exempting them from certain licensing requirements. In both 2013 and 2014, we supported legislation that would restore cuts to the HOPE scholarship. Although this progress has been important, our work is far from done.
The 2015 legislative session presents the opportunity for a fresh start in Georgia. During the Great Recession and its aftermath, the state has spent its time and energy pursuing short-term solutions that do not solve the fundamental problems we face. This reality is becoming clearer as other states recover from the worst of the recession while Georgia falls behind.
This year, the legislature should show the willingness to make the tough choices governing requires and lay the groundwork for true solutions. We have tremendous opportunities in transportation and college affordability to make improvements you feel at home.
The legislature’s transportation study committee released a report in December detailing the needed investments in our transportation systems if we are to remain economically competitive. While the needs of metro-Atlanta region are great, the legislature should take a statewide look at how we invest our funds. Athens has the fourth busiest transit system in the United States, and the Athens region would benefit from greater transit connectivity with other parts of the state. As a part of a statewide solution, the legislature should consider expanding regional commuter rail systems to connect Atlanta to our mid-size cities. Projects like the brain train will open more of the state up to economic prosperity and meet the needs of a new generation of workers who are less wed to their cars.
In addition to a statewide solution, Georgia should not solve transportation shortfalls on the backs of the state’s poorest residents. New revenues are likely to come from regressive sales and excise taxes. Also, the public-private partnerships that have facilitated projects in metro-Atlanta require expanded use of toll roads. Those who work should not have to decide between putting food on the table or filling their car with gas to get to work. Those who do not have access to bank accounts or credit cards should not have to sit in lines at a toll booth, adding time to their commute. A true solution to our transportation problems will consider the needs of all Georgians and not overlook the challenges faced by those who are less fortunate.
This year also presents an opportunity to increase access to higher education. State Representative Stacey Evans has already prefiled four bills that would improve the HOPE scholarship to allow adults to qualify for HOPE if they return to school more than seven years after high school; allow military servicemen, dependents, and veterans to qualify for HOPE; and allow for upperclassman to qualify for the Zell Miller full tuition scholarship if they improve their grades. Most importantly, House Bill 22 restores the scholarship to its original intent by reforming it to cover the full cost of tuition for all HOPE scholars.
I have seen first-hand the impact of college on young people as I just completed my own degree at UGA in December. I went back to serve as an example to my children about the importance of pursuing an education. More and more of our jobs in the future will require a college education, and a degree is an invaluable asset in moving up the economic ladder. A true solution will invest in all of our students, including those who need it most, and lay the foundation for an educated Georgia workforce
I am excited about the opportunities that lay before the legislature this year. With leadership and hard work, we can reverse the recent trend of short sightedness that has dominated our policymaking. We can work to hear the voices of all Georgians and pursue true solutions that will lay the groundwork for a stronger Georgia. I hope that you will follow the developments throughout session and reach out to me if you have comments or ideas to make Athens and Georgia an even better place to live and work. You can do that through this blog or by connecting with us on Facebook and Twitter. I thank you again for this humbling opportunity and look forward to working with you in 2015 and beyond. God Bless.
Representative Spencer Frye