Report from the Capitol: Jan. 23, 2016

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The first Legislative Day of the 2016 regular session of the Georgia General Assembly began at 10 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. After the morning devotional by Pastor Chad Kelly, East Ellijay Baptist Church in Ellijay, Georgia, and pledge to the American Flag we began by establishing the order of business by unanimous consent which is done each day while we are in session. As chairman of the Information and Audit Committee, I confirmed the accuracy of the Journals for legislative day 40 of the 2015 Legislative Session. Then Bill Reilly, the Clerk of the Georgia House of Representatives began the first reading of bills and resolutions.
It was great seeing old friends and meeting new ones as we got together again to do the States business. Six new members of the Georgia House of Representatives were introduced: Rep. Taylor Bennette, Rep. Shaw Blackmon, Rep. Clay Pirkle, Rep. Sheri Gilligan, Rep. Betty Price and Rep. Marie Robinson-Metze.
After the Governors 2015 session vetoes (three Senate Bills and eight House Bills) were entered into the Journals, HR 969 was read and adopted. This resolution recognized and commended Warner Robins native and the new Miss America for 2016, Betty Cantrell for her outstanding contributions to the State of Georgia and inviting her to the Georgia House of Representatives. Rep. Matt Hatchett introduced Miss America, Betty Cantrell to us from the Speaker’s podium. Miss Cantrell then spoke to us about the Miss America program, her platform (Healthy Children, Strong America), about growing up on a farm, and about being a student at Mercer University. She then demonstrated her tremendous talent by singing two songs. OMG, does this girl have a voice! After receiving a standing ovation she then went to the anteroom for photographs. Her mother Tassie Cantrell accompanied her and it is easy to see where she gets her beauty.
On Tuesday, Legislative Day 2, we continued the readings of bills and resolutions. They are then assigned to committees and the legislative process begins where hearings will be scheduled and presentations made.
On Wednesday, legislative day 3, we began our day with the morning devotional offered by Pastor Insoo Jung from the Korean Community Presbyterian Church of Atlanta in Duluth, Georgia. Rep. B.J. Pak, District 108, introduced distinguished members of the Korea American community to the Georgia House and recognized Jan. 13, 2016. as Korean American Day in Georgia. Jan. 13 of each year is Commemorated as Korean American day. On this day in 1903, 102 pioneering spirited Korean immigrants landed in Hawaii from aboard the SS Gaelic to begin their new life in America. Korean-Americans have made significant contributions to this country through their accomplishments in the areas of education, industry, science, the arts, and community service. Members of the Korean American community have proudly served in the United States Armed Forces during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War to protect liberty and stem the spread of communism from North Korea.
At 11 a.m., House Speaker, David Ralston convened a joint session of the General Assembly to hear an address from Governor Nathan Deal. Governor Deal used a nautical metaphor of our “Ship of State” to outline his agenda and to present excerpts from his proposed FY2017 budget. He talked about navigating the State through the strong waves and high seas of the Great Recession to reach the safe harbor of a growing economy and the creation of good paying jobs.
He said that our Rainy Day Fund is now at over $1.4 billion after being nearly depleted during the Great Recession. He talked about criminal justice reform, “by converting inmates into taxpayers and by educating and giving paroled inmates marketable skills, we will begin to reduce our rates of recidivism, which will in turn make our state safer.” Governor Deal said that the FY 2017 budget contains $58.3 million to cover his “Move On When Ready” program. This program affects over 22,000 students that are in this dual enrollment program.
He continued by saying that under his leadership the high school graduation rate went from an unacceptable 67.5 percent to an improved 78.8 percent. He went on to say that with the additional funding in this year’s budget, furlough days should be a thing of the past and that teachers should receive a 3 percent pay raise.
He said “rising healthcare costs continue to be a major factor” in the state budget. Our state health benefit plan currently receives $842 million to provide healthcare coverage for our state employees. We also contribute over $1 billion for the employer share of health insurance for our teachers.  Governor Deal announced that there would be a 3 percent pay raise for all state employees. He went on to say that for those state agencies with the highest turnover rate, additional funding will be used to raise the pay scales to reduce turnover.
Finally he said that the funding generated by HB 170 (Transportation) will have 60 percent used for repairs and maintenance of our existing infrastructure and 40 percent will be used for new construction over the next 18 months.
Thursday legislative day 4, was “Coastal and Sportsmen’s Day at the Capitol.” The South Wing of the second floor was filled with exhibits from sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts.  We also had a visit by Congressman Lynn Westmoreland. In his address he talked about his years in the Georgia House of Representatives, about his friendships here and about his years in Congress.
On Friday, legislative day 5, our Chaplain of the Day was the dynamic Dr. Benny Tate, pastor of the Rock Springs Church which has over 6,000 members. In his message he said that our greatest resource while serving in the House of Representatives is prayer. “Never under estimate the power of prayer,” he said.
After we adjourned I attended the State of Georgia’s 31st annual “Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Tribute” held in the north wing of the State Capitol. The Atlanta Boys Choir and Alumni provided the entertainment and Sen. Emanuel Jones was the master of ceremonies. Members of the King family were at the Capitol for the occasion, and Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, addressed the audience.
Visiting the Capitol this week I saw Russ Childers Jr., Darrell Sabbs and Beth English.
Thank you for choosing me to represent you in Atlanta at the State Capitol .

Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, represents District 138.