My primary goal since the day I took office was to make Georgia the No. 1 state in the country to do business. This year will be no different. In 2012, we had some of the largest economic development announcements in some time including Baxter, General Motors and Caterpillar, along with numerous others.
As I continue to reiterate that the state of our state is strong, I do so with the knowledge of improved employment numbers, increased job opportunities, revenue growth and the expanding prestige of our state in the international marketplace. Since last year, we have achieved the lowest unemployment rate in four years and announced more than 10,000 new jobs.
Together, we are showing the world that we are running state government the way it should be: in an efficient, common sense and businesslike manner. By spending tax dollars wisely, we maintained our AAA bond rating, our per capita spending of government money is 17 percent less than a decade ago, we have 9,000 fewer state employees than five years ago and the Rainy Day Fund has been increased 226 percent since I became governor.
These reasons and others, namely our assets such as the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the port of Savannah, explain why I am confident in achieving our goal of making Georgia the No. 1 state in the country in which to do business.
One of the highest hurdles facing state government is the area of healthcare. With rising healthcare costs, we have worked to keep our citizens healthy through programs such as the Georgia SHAPE program. As we all know, a healthier workforce is a more productive workforce. In addition, we have appropriated money to expand our residency programs for doctors in our state.
We believe this is one of the best ways to retain medical doctors in Georgia. At the state level, much of what we must do in regards to healthcare is react to federal measures. This past year, I took proactive action and told President Obama’s administration that under my watch Georgia would not expand our eligibility limits for Medicaid, and we would not put our name on their insurance exchange program. These programs would require job-killing tax hikes, and that’s not going to happen on my watch.
Another foundation block for growing a more prosperous Georgia is education. I have made a commitment to our future generations of leaders that I will give them the best opportunities to succeed. That begins with our earliest learners. In the budget for fiscal year 2014, I have added 10 days to the pre-K school year, restoring it to a full 180 days.
While most state agencies have continued to make cuts, K-12 education was spared these reductions. In fact, the budget will give more than $200 million over the next two years for enrollment growth and salary increases for teachers.
Two years ago, we worked together to save our HOPE Scholarship program. As a result, it remains the most generous state-run scholarship program in the nation. It also keeps our best and brightest students in Georgia. Today, I am happy to say that my budget will increase the HOPE Scholarship by 3 percent over last year, bringing the total funds going to HOPE in FY 2014 to nearly $600 million.
These are just a few of the educational areas where we have made progress, and I am confident there will be many more in 2013.
In the area of public safety, I will push for the General Assembly to capitalize on the success that we have already had with criminal justice reform by bringing legislation designed to produce better results with juvenile offenders and divert them from the adult system.
After witnessing several tragic accidents on our waterways this summer, I will push legislation that will reduce the legal blood alcohol content of a boat operator to .08, and that children who are 13 or younger must wear life jackets when riding in an open boat that is moving. These measures will make our waterways safer and protect lives.
To bolster the confidence of the public, we must establish clear rules under which political officials and those who deal with them must operate. 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.
A theme that I used throughout this week’s remarks was overcoming hurdles. Our state continues to face hurdles in the areas mentioned above and others. We cannot determine what obstacles will be laid in front of us, but we can decide how we deal with them. To grow our state, despite these hurdles, we must work diligently, choose discernment over acquiescence and confront these hurdles together.