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Georgia Civil Asset Forfeiture Plagued by “Rotten Reporting”

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Each year Georgia law enforcement seizes millions of dollars in personal property from people who were never charged with or convicted of a crime.  There was merely the suspicion that a crime had been committed, and that the property might somehow be connected to the crime that never happened.

The story gets worse for property owners.  Georgia state law permits law enforcement agencies to sell the property and keep the proceeds.  The exact dollar value is unknown because law enforcement agencies have largely failed to file required reports.

This is what the Institute for Justice (IJ) said about Georgia civil asset forfeiture policies in a new report released Wednesday:

“Georgia’s civil forfeiture system operates largely in the dark … Minimal reporting – and thus minimal oversight – combined with laws that stack the deck against property owners makes for a precarious situation for Georgia citizens … If citizens and lawmakers are to know how forfeiture is being used in the state, state law must demand more, better and more consistent reporting from all agencies.”

Last year the Georgia Public Policy Foundation joined the Institute for Justice to call on the state Legislature to examine this ongoing situation and to make reforms.  No action was taken by lawmakers.  House Bill 1 introduced this session preserves the authority of law enforcement to make these property seizures but the bill offers very little to help protect individuals.

rotten-reportingThe Institute for Justice report – “Rotten Reporting in the Peach State” — says in 2011 Georgia law enforcement agencies confiscated $2.76 million in personal property from persons who were not charged with a crime.  About half of the property confiscated was worth less than $650, often cash.  The exact value of all personal property confiscated by local law enforcement agencies is unknown because the majority of agencies did not file required state reports.

Federal law also allows law enforcement agencies to seize personal property.  The incentive is high because federal and local agencies share sale proceeds which were at least $32 million in 2011 in Georgia.  Here is a summary of key points from the IJ report:

  • “Reports filed by 58 law enforcement agencies as of July 2012 for the year 2011 reveal $2.76 million in forfeitures.  Half of the properties taken were worth less than $650.
  • “By contrast, federal reports show 147 Georgia law enforcement agencies taking in more than $32 million in forfeiture revenue in 2011 through federal forfeiture procedures, making Georgia one of the most aggressive states in the nation for federal forfeiture.
  • “Of those 147 agencies, 122 have not yet filed a state forfeiture report, even though at least 51 have published legal notices indicating they are also pursuing state forfeitures.
  • “Many state reports that have been filed lack even basic details necessary for proper public oversight, such as what was taken and when, how much it was worth and what was done with the proceeds.”

The agencies that did file 2011 calendar year state reports seized $1.15 million in cash, $1.05 million categorized as “other” and $453,154 in cars.  The federal program known as “equitable sharing” is an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and local agencies to share in proceeds.  Georgia’s portion of “equitable sharing” grew from $14.5 million in Fiscal Year 2000 to $32.5 million in Fiscal 2011.  The total take during those dozen years: $250 million.  The IJ report says, “The state’s total dwarfed the average of $8.8 million across all states.”

The report says Georgia civil asset forfeiture laws should require a criminal conviction before agencies could take title to assets and proceeds after sale, and impose a higher standard of proof on law enforcement to prove that an asset was connected to a crime.  Also, the Institute says new laws should “Protect innocent owners by removing the burden on property owners to prove their innocence and instead placing the burden of proof on the government.”  Several new requirements are proposed to standardize and improve what law enforcement agencies report.

Lee McGrath is legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice and he is co-author of the Georgia report.  “Police and prosecutors should be chasing criminals, not profits, but allowing the law enforcement to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives them a direct financial incentive to abuse their power,” said McGrath.  “To remedy this problem, the Georgia state legislature must enact comprehensive forfeiture reform to protect private property.”

Learn more about civil asset forfeiture laws in these Institute for Justice videos on YouTube:

Georgia Law Enforcement Often Refuses to Report Forfeiture Funds

End Forfeiture Abuse: How States Can be Tough on Crime and Respect Property Rights

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)


January 31, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mental Health is a Huge Issue” in Georgia Justice Strategies

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Discussion about mental health and other substance abuse treatment alternatives was front and center Wednesday when criminal justice system officials addressed House and Senate joint appropriations lawmakers at the State Capitol.  “Mental health is a huge issue in all the things we do,” Judge Robin W. Shearer said on behalf of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.

Georgia is in the early stages of significant adult and juvenile justice system reforms that focus on how to ensure incarceration for the most serious offenders, and how to provide community treatment options for offenders who do not benefit from or even require incarceration.

Last year the General Assembly passed reforms to move the adult corrections system toward those goals.   This year legislators are expected to approve sweeping reforms to juvenile criminal law and the civil code.  Governor Nathan Deal has made reforms a personal priority and his budget devotes millions of dollars to these goals.

The importance of mental health considerations was evident early in Wednesday’s hearing.

Adult corrections commissioner Brian Owens said the state has opened alternative treatment centers in seven rural judicial circuits and this year plans to open four-to-seven more.  Two facilities were opened to treat “dually diagnosed offenders”; Owens described them as persons with mental illness who attempt to medicate themselves with legal prescriptions or illegal drugs.  The state has also opened a new residential substance abuse treatment center for males.

These options give the state capability to treat about 5,000 non-violent offenders per year in community settings rather than prisons.  “Georgia, I believe, is really at the forefront of dealing with criminal addiction (and) criminal mental health issues,” Owens said, “applying mental health resources in the community before offenders get too far down the road and we suffer a tragedy.”

2013 State of the State Address(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

2013 State of the State Address
(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

Governor Deal’s Fiscal 2014 budget contains $11.6 million for the continued expansion of drug and mental health accountability courts for non-violent offenders who need community-based treatment more than they need incarceration; this builds on $10 million that Deal inserted for the same purpose into the Fiscal 2013 budget.   Next year’s proposed budget also contains a $5 million line item to create incentives to start community-based juvenile treatment options.

That is good news for juvenile judges.  “I welcome prevention dollars,” said Judge Shearer, who is president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been a juvenile court judge since 1993.  Shearer said, “The pendulum of whether we emphasize prevention or penalties kind of swings back and forth.  A prevention dollar is a dollar well spent.”  Shearer noted, “We are seeing children from birth until they become adults.”

By the numbers, the state adult corrections system has some 57,500 inmates and 162,600 on felony probation.  The budget is about $1.1 billion per year to support adult corrections.  The annual per bed cost for an adult inmate is about $18,000, but that cost increases for older inmates who require more advanced health care.

This week the juvenile justice system, a separate entity, had 1,741 in secure confinement and 11,941 on community supervision.  The juvenile justice department budget is $300 million. DJJ makes contact with about 52,000 juveniles per calendar year.  The annual per bed cost for a committed juvenile is above $90,000, higher than adult incarceration cost for many reasons including, DJJ operates its own school system.

Those financial numbers do not tell a complete story.  State pardons and paroles has a budget near $53 million.  Juvenile system officials, including the juvenile courts, interact with many other state agencies, making it hard to determine exactly what the state directly spends on juveniles and their justice issues.  The state easily spends $1.4 billion annually on adult and juvenile justice without factoring in even one cent of what it costs to run state and local courts.

Proposals from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — for adults and juveniles — focus on how to protect the public, reduce public expense and reduce recidivism, which is the percentage of juveniles who are re-adjudicated or adults convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release.  More than 50 percent of juveniles re-enter the justice system within three years and more than 30 percent of adults re-offend.

Owens said the number of state inmates being held in county jails is significantly down.  Twelve months ago county jails held 900 males waiting for placement in a probation detention center.  Today there are no males and about 200 females.  That is important to local governments because the state does not reimburse counties for inmates who are waiting for probation detention center placement. “Our counties will save money,” Owens said.

Juvenile justice commissioner Avery Niles told legislators, “We have become an agency that deals with both youths and adults in a juvenile setting.”  Niles was DJJ board chairman until two months ago when Governor Deal moved him to the commissioner’s office.  Niles said that about half of juveniles who enter the corrections system have drug addictions.  He described the overall population as “older, more aggressive and staying longer.”  Ninety percent of youths in DJJ custody are now designated felons.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

(This article was republished by Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.)

Right on Crime

January 24, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Growth Directly Linked to Washington’s Fiscal House

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia’s ability to continue slow but steady economic growth might depend on factors beyond its control, including a “heroic assumption” that the federal government will somehow get its fiscal house in order.  “If we can just solve things in Washington I think we will be ready to go,” state fiscal economist Kenneth Heaghney said Tuesday morning at the State Capitol.

Heaghney was largely upbeat and cautiously optimistic when he addressed House and Senate joint appropriations committee legislators.  Slow growth is possible through 2017.  Year-to-date year total tax revenue for six months ending in December was 4.9 percent, less than forecast.  “Our revenue stream tends to be very volatile,” Heaghney said.

“Individual income tax is trending in the right way (year-to-date, up 5.4 percent) and underlying detail suggests an economy that is slowly improving,” Heaghney said.  “Housing appears to have turned the corner both nationally and in Georgia.  That takes away the severe negative that we saw in the early part of the recession and even in 2010.”

Evidence Georgia is rebounding includes: Individual and corporate income tax receipts continue to improve; existing home sales are trending up; several sectors report hiring growth, including manufacturing and trade; initial unemployment claims are down; and, the state’s 1.8 percent annual gross domestic product growth is better than the 1.4 percent national growth.

Heaghney predicted the Georgia private sector will create about 20,000 new jobs over the next six months and about 63,000 for the fiscal year that ends in June.  With an eye on the “heroic assumption” that Washington can fix its fiscal house, Heaghney predicted job growth could pick up later this year, and, “In 2014 we could see much more rapid growth.”

Kenneth HeaghneyState Fiscal Economist

Kenneth Heaghney
State Fiscal Economist

Consumers have not fully bought into recovery.  Heaghney said 2.7 percent current year state sales tax growth is “relatively slow” because consumer discretionary spending stalled due to a decline in disposable personal income.  Heaghney predicted discretionary spending growth will continue to be soft after payroll taxes increased for everyone this month and higher income earners also saw their federal income tax rates go up because of the “fiscal cliff” agreement.

Washington is wrestling with several contentious fiscal issues: Mandatory across-the-board budget cuts that could be imposed under sequestration, the unresolved national debt level argument and a continuing resolution that must be passed so bills can be paid.   The House will vote Wednesday on a Republican proposal to extend the debt limit discussion by several months in an attempt to work out budget disagreements and Senate Democrats say they will write a budget that further increases taxes.

Agreement reached on the so-called “fiscal cliff” less than four weeks ago now seems almost inconsequential.  “We ended 2012 with a very small solution to the overall federal budget problem,” Heaghney said.  “The part that was resolved results in higher taxes, payroll taxes and income taxes on high income people.  We expect that to be a weight on consumer spending growth and investment growth, particularly in the first half of 2013 while people adjust to the new tax regime.”

Georgia’s pre-recession economy depended heavily on construction.  Recession devastated builders and banks.  Construction employment was down 18 percent two years ago so by that measurement, last year’s one percent decline is progress.  New home construction permits have been trending up since mid-2011.  The Atlanta region reported six consecutive months of price increases through November but prices have not rebounded to 2000-year levels.

“The caveat is that we still see very high foreclosure rates even though they are falling,” said Heaghney, “and mortgage delinquency rates are still high, although they are falling.”  Heaghney said existing home sales are trending up because of investor group demand for rental property.

“That is the story behind the improvement in housing value that we’ve seen within the metro Atlanta area,” Heaghney said.  “It seems they’ve got a lot of money to invest.”  Individual buyers are still finding tough sledding.  “It is very difficult for non-prime credit people to get a mortgage.”  He predicted “a long slide” before the individual homeowner mortgage market loosens up.

Governor Nathan Deal began three days of hearings with brief remarks that recapped priorities in his $40.8 billion Fiscal 2014 proposed budget.  The proposal includes $19.8 billion in state dollars and $21 billion in federal funds.  Deal reminded legislators that state spending is down 17 percent in a decade and there are 9,000 fewer state employees than five years ago.  Deal outlined his priorities last week at “Eggs and Issues” and in his State of the State address.

Appropriations committee hearings Wednesday morning will focus on the adult corrections and juvenile justice systems.  All sessions are broadcast live on the House TV website.

January 22, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governor Deal Pushes Medicaid Fix; Proposes $19.8B Budget

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal has proposed a $19.864 billion state dollars budget for the new fiscal year that starts in July, up about 2.7 percent from this year’s $19.341 billion budget.  The Fiscal 2014 proposed budget was released on the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget website while Deal delivered his State of the State address at the Capitol.

Total state spending next year would be about $40.837 billion with the other $21 billion being anticipated federal funding.  The trend line here continues to be fiscal savings and a big emphasis on health care cost strategy.  Nearly all state agencies were asked to cut their next year budgets by 3 percent and some by higher percentages.

Governor Deal devoted the bulk of his address to four policy areas – public safety, education, health care and economic development – but he ended with comments on ethics, stating, “If there is to be an expansion of the code of ethical conduct for members of the General Assembly, it should apply equally to all elected officials at the state and local levels.”  The state Senate has passed one ethics bill and the House is expected to have a bill.  However, Deal’s statement was significant in that he said ethics state law should apply to local officials.

Medicaid costs again dominated his health care comments. The Governor urged passage of his legislation that would authorize the state Department of Community Health board to continue that hospital provider fee that would otherwise sunset this June.  “Unless this is done, there will be a shortfall in revenue to support the Medicaid program of nearly $700 million,” Deal said.

The so-called temporary fix to Medicaid expense was imposed by the 2010 General Assembly.  Deal’s bill would transfer responsibility for continuing that fee to DCH board members, giving legislators a free pass.  The fee would raise about $241 million next year, according to the Governor’s proposed budget.  The Senate passed the bill 46 – 9 later Thursday; the legislation now travels across the Capitol to the House.

2013 State of the State Address(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

2013 State of the State Address
(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

“Since we cannot adjust benefits, the reduction in reimbursements to hospitals would be the only way to keep the program solvent,” Deal told legislators.  “These reductions would be approximately 20 percent, which would seriously jeopardize many of our state’s hospitals.”  On Wednesday Deal said perhaps 12-to-14 hospitals would close if the fee is allowed to sunset.

The Governor’s address created no significant new policy sectors.  Deal recognized “times have been tough” economically but he vowed, “I will not lead our state with a Doomsday mindset.”  His proposed budget includes spending cuts of at least 3 percent for nearly all state agencies except K-12 public education.  Selected state agencies begin three days of public budget hearings next Tuesday.

“Just as Georgia is too big and too important to fall prey to Doomsayers’ pessimism, it is also too big and too important to be divided by race, geography or ideology,” Deal said.  “This year let’s concentrate on the things on which we can all agree.”

Three education announcements should encourage families:  The Pre-K school year would be restored to 180 days, a 10-day increase over this year’s funding level, in the governor’s budget and Deal proposed a 3 percent funding increase to $600 million for the HOPE program.  One year ago there were projections that HOPE was on a financial slide to insolvency.  And, $147.3 million will be added to the K-12 education budget for enrollment growth and teacher training.

The governor said the state’s 28-year-old public education funding formula “does not meet the needs of a Twenty First century classroom,” and he added, “Georgia has had too many school boards under the sanctions of potential loss of accreditation.”  Deal said reasons why school systems lose accreditation must be addressed by state legislation.  “Poor outcomes are most often not the result of lack of money, but lack of vision and leadership,” the governor said.

2013 State of the State Address(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

2013 State of the State Address
(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

Deal encouraged legislators to build on last year’s unanimous passage of adult corrections reforms and to adopt juvenile system reforms that would reduce incarceration expenses for non-violent youthful offenders.  The state spends $300 million per year on juvenile justice.  “Just as with last year, we stand to lower recidivism and save taxpayer dollars,” Deal said.

The governor said state economic development initiatives have produced 10,000 new jobs since his last State of the State address.  He also said state per capita spending is down 17 percent within the last decade and state government now employs 9,000 fewer people than five years ago.  “We have reduced the burden on Georgia taxpayers,” Deal said.

Deal said the  state “rainy day fund” now has $378 million in cash reserves, which is a 226 percent improvement since Deal took office, and that has enabled Georgia to retain its Triple AAA bond rating.  However the balance is well below pre-recession levels of about $1.6 billion.

The Governor proposed stronger DUI alcohol laws for boaters to bring them into line with drunk driving laws and mandatory life jackets for all persons 13 years old or younger who are riding in a boat or using a personal watercraft.  Currently there is a great deal of national emphasis on gun control and public school safety, but Deal did not address either topic in his remarks.

Additional highlights from Governor Deal’s proposed budget:

  • Increase basic K-12 education funding by more than $156 million.
  • Increase Pre-K early care and learning funding by $12.9 million to $312 million.
  • Increase K-12 equalization grants by $41 million for the poorest school districts.
  • Increase university system funding by $84.6 million to fund growth.
  • Increase university and technical college system capital investments by $247 million.
  • Increase state funding by $50 million to $231 million for the Port of Savannah project.
  • Increase state funding by $2 million to train health care career professionals.
  • Commit $69.8 million to fully fund the state share of teacher retirement system.
  • Commit $60 million to fund new transportation projects in FY 2013 and FY 2014.
  • As promised earlier, end the user tolls paid by drivers on Georgia Route 400.
  • Proposed $25.2 million in bond sales for water supply projects.
  • Proposed $15 million in bond sales for Georgia World Congress Center upgrades.
  • Proposed $26.5 million in bond sales for state parks and lands improvements.

January 17, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Online Digital World Will Re-Imagine and Liberate Learning

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

What we know or can know about each other never ceases to amaze me and it constantly evolves.  Netflix knows the movies we like.  Amazon knows what we want to purchase.  Websites target us with messages based on how we use websites.  Even toddlers use the web for videos and games as they acquire skill sets that will be essential for learning and success.

The all-knowing online world will re-imagine and liberate learning.  “Education used to be someplace you went to.  You used to go to school to learn,” says John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now!  “Now all of a sudden learning can come to wherever the student is located.”

You’re probably not going to hear extensive legislative conversation about personalized digital learning during the 2013 General Assembly.  One reason is two bills passed last year that will significantly alter the state’s blended and online learning footprint.  The other reason is a digital learning deep water study is underway by a task force appointed by Governor Nathan Deal.

Senate Bill 289 established several goals.  First, it said all public school students in grades three through 12 should have online learning options starting as early as the 2013 – 2014 school year.  Second, all 2014 fall high school freshmen should enroll in at least one online learning course before graduation.  Finally, the Senate bill struck down rules that enabled local districts to deny permission when students wanted to enroll in Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) courses.

House Bill 175 instructed state education officials to develop a clearinghouse of courses from public school districts and private sources.  This could include GAVS state-developed courses, curriculum that Georgia local school districts develop, and also courses from private education companies, such as the Georgia Cyber Academy courses.  The intent is to create an extensive library that would be available statewide to everyone through the DOE at no cost to students.

“Part of what we do is work with state lawmakers, with district leaders, with thought leaders, often being asked, where are the states we should be looking at?” said Bailey when he was in Georgia to address the Governor’s digital learning task force.   “Often we are talking about the work you are doing here in Georgia.”  Bailey is a former White House domestic policy advisor under President George W. Bush.  He also worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Digital Task ForceThis week the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement unveiled its new Digital Learning Task Force website.  The site contains an exhaustive definition of digital learning, names of  task force members, the task force public meeting schedule, a long list of digital learning resources and highlights from school districts that are considered out front of the curve.  You can also find a new state Department of Education digital learning status report required by Senate Bill 289.

Thirteen task force members have been asked to make recommendations on access options, course considerations – who creates courses, who approves them, who pays for them? – and some significant infrastructure questions – which schools have the necessary technology and which do not, who pays for that technology, what is the private sector role in technology?

The task force is coordinated by Sam Rauschenberg, deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.  He told the Foundation, “Since improving digital learning in Georgia will take a team effort the report may also include recommendations for schools and districts on how to move the ball forward in digital and blended learning.”

Bob Swiggum, Georgia Department of Education

Bob Swiggum, Georgia Department of Education

Access, courses and infrastructure are three big essential pieces.  Dig deeper and there is more at hand.  What is the role of the traditional textbook in future learning; has the back-breaking book bag finally had its day?  Who will teach the teachers how to teach this new model; how quickly can they be prepared?  How do we prepare parents for learning that they never experienced?  What is the future for competency-based learning that allows students to advance when ready?  How do you create incentives that will make local schools want to participate in online learning models? And a very central question that will also be considered, what are the funding model options?

The development of an online courses clearinghouse is proceeding rapidly.  About a dozen contributors including the Gwinnett and Forsyth school districts along with many private learning companies have submitted courses for review.  State education officials are evaluating courses using national standards established by Achieve and iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.  Hundreds of courses could be posted online as early as next month.

“Once we have it ready we will show it to legislators and ask them, are there any showstoppers here?” said Bob Swiggum, chief information officer at the Department of Education.  “If the answer is no we will probably open it up right on the DOE website as another tool.”  Marketing will be word-of-mouth and via the DOE web; there is no paid marketing budget available.

During his presentation to task force members last month Bailey emphasized that students live in an era of customization whether they are interacting with video, music or nearly any other aspect of their lives. “The only place that is different is education where we ask kids growing up in a personalized world to fit into a cookie cutter model,” Bailey said.  “That is a very frustrating disconnect.  That is what’s leading to dropout rates; it’s leading to kids being unengaged.”

The next task force meeting is scheduled for 1:00 pm on Tuesday, February 5 in the fifth floor conference room at the Georgia Tech Research Institute adjacent to Georgia Public Broadcasting in midtown Atlanta.  Discussion will focus on learning content.  The task force will submit final recommendations to Governor Nathan Deal Office and to legislators before the 2014 General Assembly.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 16, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governor Deal at Eggs: No Such Thing as “Free Health Care”

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal said the state Department of Community Health has been told to reduce its amended current fiscal year budget by 3 percent and then find 5 percent more in new cuts next year to help the state absorb Medicaid costs that continue to escalate.  The state faces a Medicaid deficit that will approach $800 million during the next 18 months of its fiscal cycle.

Deal devoted nearly his entire speech to health care when he addressed the Georgia Chamber of Commerce annual “Eggs and Issues” breakfast Wednesday at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.   The Governor also suggested folks who cannot attend Thursday morning’s State of the State address should monitor his “Tweeter” account.  Deal will announce his budget during the speech, scheduled for 11:00 a.m. at the State Capitol.

“Georgians who have already received a paycheck this January have no doubt noticed that their payroll taxes went up and their take-home salary went down,” Deal said.  “This is the cost of entitlements.  If you think your taxes went up a lot this month, just wait till we hve to pay for ‘free health care.’  Free never cost so much.”

The push is on to quickly approve a Medicaid funding fix bill proposed by the Governor with an initial Senate floor vote perhaps this week.  Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston echoed their support for the governor’s bill that would give the Community Health board the authority to continue the hospital provider fee that would otherwise sunset in June.

The fee paid by all Georgia hospitals based on annual revenue is used to draw down federal dollars that are redistributed to hospitals that serve Medicaid patients.  The General Assembly enacted the fee three years ago to address a rapidly developing shortage in Medicaid funds caused by increased demand for services.  Deal said 12-to-14 hospitals would face closure if the provider fee is not continued.  DCH imposes a similar nursing home industry fee.

Governor Nathan Deal

Governor Nathan Deal

“In fact, we are one of 47 states that have either a nursing home or hospital provider fee or both,” Deal said.  The governor said “it makes sense to me” that DCH should have authority over both fees “for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.”  The move also means that state lawmakers would be spared having to vote to continue an expiring fee or impose a new one.

Deal said DCH has identified $109 million in cost-savings. “But this hardly covers the additional nearly $500 million in needed funds caused by growth in Medicaid expenses during the same time frame,” Deal said.  “This means we must make necessary cuts in other agencies and core functions of government since raising taxes is not an option I will accept!”

The governor is no fan or friend to the federal health care reform law known as Obamacare.

During the past several months the Deal administration said it will not expand Medicaid eligibility starting in 2014 because the state cannot afford more than $2.5 billion that it currently spends annually on Medicaid.  The federal government pays about $5 billion annually. Georgia anticipates its share of Medicaid costs will increase at least $1.7 billion over the next ten years.

Deal said the federal health care reform law will add $106 million to the cost of state-provided health care benefits for active and retired employees starting in 2014.  He also said Georgia will be assessed a new $35 million insurance tax starting in 2015.  About 13 percent of all state budget dollars currently pay for Medicaid or the state children’s health insurance programs.

“The irony to me is that there are those in the medical community who are urging the expansion of the Medicaid program while at the same time, they are seeing more and more medical providers refusing to accept Medicaid patients,” Deal said.  “If you are losing money now how do you reconcile the number of patients on whom you will lose even more money.”

Georgia also said it will not create a state health insurance exchange, as envisioned in the federal health care reform law.  “I see no benefit to our citizens to have a program bearing the name of the State of Georgia over which our elected or appointed officials have little if any say so,” Deal said.  “While many federal programs come with strings attached, these strings turn states into marionettes to be manipulated by federal bureaucrats.”

As for “Tweeter,” the Governor noted, “My staff tells me that I am really getting into the modern age.   You can go to my Tweeter account!” for updates on the State of the State address.  The address will be carried live on General Assembly and Georgia Public Broadcasting websites. GPTV will broadcast the State of the State address and the Democratic leadership response in their entirety at 7:00 p.m. on the legislative program “Lawmakers.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 16, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FBI Fingerprint Checks Could Make Day Care Safer for Kids

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia has tens of thousands of non-director-level day care staff that work in thousands of facilities. Stronger laws could improve what we know about most of them, including whether they were charged with sex abuse or felony crimes in other states.  This would ensure a more complete picture about whether the youngest small fry in the state are in good hands or not.

“It’s the caretakers oftentimes that present the biggest danger to children,” says Bobby Cagle, commissioner at the Department of Early Care and Learning.  As the General Assembly opens Monday, Cagle is again pushing for legislation that would require FBI fingerprint-based criminal background checks that would ensure access to databases in all states.  DECAL oversees Bright from the Start and day care for children younger than kindergarten enrollment age.

A May 2011 report published by Child Care Aware of America said 35 states require federal or state fingerprint background checks for day care center employees.  Some states require both.  Georgia requires a criminal history check limited to Georgia offenses but no fingerprint check for non-director level staff.  Also, the state’s child abuse and neglect registry was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court so that presents another obstacle to a successful screen of day care workers.

“Some of you may be thinking to yourself, we don’t have fingerprint-based background checks on all employees?” Cagle said when he addressed a Georgia Children’s Advocacy Network conference in Atlanta.  “That was my reaction.  I’m a former probation officer and formerly did child protective services.  I am well aware of the dangers to children in situations like this.”

On a typical day about 350,000 Georgia children attend day care. That number is greater than the population of every city in the state except Atlanta.   Cagle’s department licenses some 6,000 day care facilities.  Facility directors are subject to fingerprint-based background checks but other employees, about 24,000 statewide, are not based on current state law.

Bobby Cagle, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

Bobby Cagle, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

“So we have about 24,000 people in the state of Georgia working with our youngest children who only have a local background check, meaning they walk into a police department or other vendor and give them their name and birth, usually not a Social Security number,” Cagle said.  “They are provided with a copy of their Georgia background check.  This is less secure than a fingerprint-based background check.”

The Department of Early Care and Learning receives more than 100 complaints per month related to possible inappropriate activity at a day care center.  Complaints often originate with parents or others who ask that the state investigate a day care center.   Complaints can pertain to facility safety, improper treatment of children, fiscal, employee behavior or any other issue.

“Child safety should be the first requirement for care,” said Pat Willis, Executive Director at the Atlanta-based Voices for Georgia’s Children.  “Georgia requires FBI fingerprint checks for our public school professionals who teach children from age five to eighteen.  Children from birth to four deserve the same protection.”

Two months ago state officials shut down a Macon day care center after they investigated an anonymous complaint.  The state determined two staff members had Florida criminal records that included multiple felonies for crimes like fraud involving a child care center and robbery.  None of this showed up on Georgia background checks because fingerprints were not required and the state investigation merely confirmed both workers had no criminal records in Georgia.

Cagle said the Department of Early Care and Learning has begun to draft legislation that would require all day care workers to undergo a fingerprint-based criminal background check.   It is not clear who would pay for background checks, either the day care centers or the employees.

Teachers submit to fingerprint checks every five years as part of the certificate renewal process.  The cost is about $50, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation website.  Matt Cardoza at the state Department of Education said generally the school district picks up the costs.

Although it might seem like a no-brainer – keep kids safe by keeping possible degenerates away from them – efforts to update this section of Georgia law go back at least four years, including last year when Cagle tried to move a similar measure through the General Assembly.

Last year the membership-based Georgia Child Care Association did not support a possible bill.  GCCA questions included cost, access to testing resources especially in rural communities and how quickly the testing system would be responsive to approve new hires. This year the organization is working alongside DECAL to craft possible legislation.

“We are very supportive of the concept,” said Georgia Child Care Association Executive Director Carolyn Salvador.  “We’ve been brought in to brainstorm the best approach.  We would like to make this work.  It’s working out the practical solutions and the logistics underneath it that can be problematic, and the costs to an industry that is already stretched very thin.”

Also unclear is how potential adoption of mandatory fingerprint-based background checks would affect summer camps and similar organizations that are not full-time accredited day care centers but they employ adult supervisors and counselors who interact with very young children.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 11, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is There Ever Anything Good About Receiving a D+ Grade?

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Pop Quiz:  Is there ever anything good about receiving a D+ grade?

This week the public education watchdog StudentsFirst ranked Georgia 15th nationally in a report that analyzed state policies rather than student performance.  The D+ grade assigned to Georgia considered improvement in public charter school laws and a new teacher evaluations format but the report downgraded Georgia for weakness empowering parents with meaningful information and deficiencies in financial accountability policies.

The overall message to Georgia is the state has plenty of room for improvement.

Grading states in a numerical range that produced an “A-to-F” format, no state received an “A” in the StudentsFirst report card.  Louisiana (B- and 2.88) and Florida (B- and 2.73) finished one-two.  Georgia (D+ and 1.42) placed behind Tennessee (C- and 1.75) which ranked 11th.  States were evaluated in three major categories:  elevating teaching, empowering parents and spending wisely.  Thirty-eight states scored “D or F” and ten states scored “C”.

The summary stated, “Georgia recently took a bold step in elevating the teaching profession by eliminating seniority-based layoffs.  Georgia enacted legislation in 2012 that requires districts to use educator performance – significantly informed by student academic growth – as the primary factor in determining layoffs.  This legislation has the potential to inspire continued improvements in the state’s education policies.”

StudentsFirst LogoStudentsFirst was founded in 2010 by Michelle Rhee after her tenure as the Washington, D.C. public schools system chancellor ended with her resignation.  Widely known as a high profile reformer and advocate for students, Rhee was often at odds against entrenched bureaucracy.

The national education policies analysis is the first issued by StudentsFirst.  “It is real tough to use test scores as the sole metric for students living in different towns, different parts of town, different parts of the country,” said Bradford Swann, Georgia state director for StudentsFirst.  “This report solely focuses on the laws that are in place to bring about education reform.”

Swann cited the example of Louisiana which placed first in the StudentsFirst report even though its fourth and eighth grade students scored in the bottom 10 percent nationally in 2011 math and reading tests.  The state adopted policies that link personnel and salary decisions to student performance.  Louisiana also enacted stronger public charter school and voucher policies.

Swann said Louisiana is “building a foundation that will allow them to really bring about student achievement not for one or two years but for the long haul.  That is the key point.  For the next 20 years, do you have the tools in place so you can advance your students?”  Swann recently joined StudentsFirst after serving on the staff of U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson.

A new Georgia teacher evaluation system that StudentsFirst cited as a positive step forward was criticized this week when initial results showed just 1 percent of teachers evaluated in a pilot project were determined to be ineffective.  Given that Georgia elementary students score low on national tests, and the state’s four-year high school graduation rate is among the lowest nationally, critics quickly suggested the new teacher evaluation format needs some work.

Here are more highlights from the Georgia section:

Elevate Teaching:  “Georgia does not substantively assess its educators … While the existing statewide evaluation includes classroom observations and student growth, it lacks key criteria … such as a four-tier rating of effectiveness, significant student growth and student surveys.  Similarly, principal evaluations lack all essential criteria of comprehensive evaluations.”

Empower Parents:  “Currently, Georgia parents do not have access to meaningful information that enables them to engage in their schools and to make informed decisions for their children … Georgia should require A-F letter grades for schools rather than a star rating system.  Georgia should also provide for notifying parents of teacher ineffectiveness and allow parents access to teacher quality information … Georgia should establish a parent trigger law that allows a majority of parents to band together at the grassroots level and petition to turn around low-performing schools throughout the state.”

Spend Wisely and Govern Well: “Georgia should empower data-driven decision making by improving the financial data it collects and linking spending to academic achievement.  If school districts mismanage resources, Georgia should provide for governance changes … Georgia should move to a portable employer-sponsored retirement plan and permit public charter schools to opt out of the plan.”

Click here read the complete Georgia section on the StudentsFirst website.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 8, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment