The scene is an early October forum in suburban Atlanta. A gathering of conservative Georgia lawmakers who focus on education issues pose a challenge to the people at the meeting – help us make the case it is time to raise state taxes for the sake of our schoolchildren.
Whoa. What did they just say?
Not many of Georgia’s elected officials publicly broach the possibility of raising taxes. As is the case in most Southern states, many Georgia lawmakers pledged to heed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax agenda, even in the wake of severe underfunding of our public schools and desperately needed infrastructure upgrades to support technology and commerce.
I’ll probably never know if our recent report spotlighting the depth of K-12 budget cuts to local school systems was on the minds of lawmakers that day, but I do know the report received unbelievable statewide coverage and raised more than a few eyebrows.
This is just one recent example of GBPI’s work to shape state policy conversations.
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) is a member of the collaborative State Fiscal Analysis Initiative network, which brings together nonpartisan, independent, nonprofit organizations across the country that share a commitment to rigorous policy analysis. Based in Washington, D.C., network staffers provide communications support to GBPI and the other statewide organizations.
Our goal at GBPI is to serve as the intellectual underpinning for public policy in Georgia, with a special focus on ways policies impact low and middle income Georgians. We don’t just spotlight problems, we highlight solutions. Through our sophisticated communication strategies we take an active role in informing the public policy debate every single day.
GBPI marks its 10th anniversary in 2014. Our evolution is a source of pride and motivation for me, especially this year. Here’s a sampling of how we combine policy analysis and communications to influence the policy debate:
- In 2011, the Georgia Legislature changed the state’s financial aid scholarship program for technical school students by raising the minimum GPA from 2.0 to 3.0. Alarmed this would hurt the ability of low and middle income students to pay for college, GBPI spotlighted the problem in a 2012 report. The report found thousands of students would lose access to training to become medical assistants, truck drivers and for other skilled jobs that pay well. The warnings in the report spread quickly and in 2013 Georgia’s Legislature reversed the change, reinstating financial aid benefits for nearly 10,000 technical school students who lost aid in 2011 under the new restriction.
- Georgia is one of many Southern states resisting Medicaid expansion. Expansion remains the single best opportunity for poor, elderly and disabled Georgians to gain access to health care. To make this case, GBPI produces attention-grabbing research highlighting the myriad benefits of expansion on a regular basis. We participate in coalitions and briefings and frequently distribute communications with data to support expansion. Persuading Georgia’s governor to embrace expansion is a work in progress and we are committed to remaining in the thick of it.
- Georgia relies on an income tax for nearly half its annual budget. Nationally-funded fringe interest groups are pushing legislation across the Southeast to shift states from an income tax to a drastically increased sales tax. This push manifested itself recently in North Carolina. The latest battlefront is Georgia. Just as the so-called “Fair Tax” proposals started to gain traction in Georgia this summer, GBPI rolled out a comprehensive research, communication and outreach campaign to expose the idea for what it is – a tax shift. It would threaten Georgia schools, raise taxes on families and make it hard for small businesses to compete. When a state senate study committee held a hearing on “Fair Tax” plans with supportive witnesses preaching to the converted, GBPI was quick to point out the one-sided approach. Our tax and economic policy expert was soon testifying before the committee, providing a fresh perspective.
We all struggle to measure and take credit for influence on policy making. And those of us promoting progressive policy issues in the South have a steeper mountain to climb than others. But these examples show developing credible information and disseminating it through a solid communications strategy is an effective way to gain ground. I have no doubt we are steadily getting closer to the top of the mountain.
Alan Essig is the Executive Director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. His recent professional experience includes serving as a senior research associate with the Fiscal Research Center of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, as well as deputy policy director for the Georgia Governor’s Office. Alan’s experience also includes serving as a committee aide for the Georgia State Senate and Georgia House of Representatives Appropriations Committees, assistant commissioner for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, director of the Georgia State Senate Research Office, deputy director of the Budgetary Responsibility Oversight Committee, and as a legislative budget analyst for the New York State Senate Finance Committee. Georgia Trend magazine named Alan one of the 100 Most Influential Georgians in 2011, 2012 and 2013.