Georgia's economy and the race for governor

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, left, and his Democratic rival, state Sen. Jason Carter, smile at a question during the Atlanta Press Club debate on Oct. 19. CURTIS COMPTON PHOTOS / AJC
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, left, and his Democratic rival, state Sen. Jason Carter, smile at a question during the Atlanta Press Club debate on Oct. 19. CURTIS COMPTON PHOTOS / AJC

With Georgia holding the dubious distinction of the nation’s highest unemployment rate for the second month in a row, it is no surprise that the economy continues to be a top campaign issue in the close governor’s race.

Rhetoric from Republican Gov. Nathan Deal calls the 7.9 percent unemployment rate an "outlier" compared to the 300,000-plus jobs created in his first term. That includes 80,000 jobs created last year, putting Georgia sixth in the nation for job growth.

Democratic challenger, state Sen. Jason Carter calls the 7.9 percent unemployment rate for August and September proof that the state’s economic plan is failing the middle class. He has pledged to boost classroom funding as one fix.

As Election Day nears, PolitiFact Georgia has moved beyond that rhetoric and fact checked specific claims about the economy and state budget from both camps.

STATE REVENUE REBOUNDING?

In a Sept. 15 candidate forum, Deal said the state’s plummeting revenue levels had contributed to lower education funding. Overall revenue, he said, had just returned this year to 2007 levels, before he took office amid the Great Recession.

Records of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget confirm that 2007 was Georgia’s fiscal high water mark. Taxes revenue reached $17.8 billion that year, up $1.3 billion from 2006.

At the low point – the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010 – total tax collections fell to $14.5 billion --- or $3.3 billion off the peak.

It wasn't until fiscal 2014, which ended June 30 of this year, that total state tax collections were back to --- and slightly above --- 2007 levels, budget documents show.

Tax collections for 2014 were $17.9 billion. The rebound was part of the reason Deal was able to reduce state austerity cuts to public education from $1 billion-plus a year for each of the past five years to about $747 million this year.

That means the cuts remain. But the governor was right on the money with his numbers. We rated his statement True.

HOW IS THE MIDDLE CLASS FARING?

Carter also invoked the Georgia’s economy when he said in a television ad that state leaders had not done enough on behalf of the state’s middle-class residents.

"In the last 10 years, Georgia’s middle-class income has dropped $6,500," he said in the ad. "We have to change that."

Historical data from the U.S. Census bureau supports Carter’s claim.

The numbers how that that the median household income in Georgia fell by an estimated $6,682, from $54,803 in 2002 to $48,121 in 2012, when adjusted for inflation.

Nationally, in that same period, the median household income dropped from $54,127 to $51,017, or $3,110, according to the Census Bureau's data.

That means Carter was conservative in his assessment. We rated his claim True.

DOES DEAL GET CREDIT FOR RESTORING PRE-K?

On his campaign website, Deal takes credit for restoring Georgia's lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program to its traditional 180 days a year, calling it a "real result" of his tenure.

Thousands of Georgians take advantage of the nationally lauded program every year, sending their 4-year-olds to free pre-K in 3,800 classes statewide.

Deal took on the falling lottery revenue and growing expenses that threatened the program and sister HOPE scholarships shortly after he took office in 2011.

He first proposed converting pre-K from a full-day to a part-day program, but he abandoned that proposal after a public outcry. As an alternative, he asked lawmakers to reduce the pre-K school year from 180 to 160 days, for a savings estimated at $22 million a year.

The governor also recommended cutting more than 300 pre-K classes across the state, forcing some teachers out of jobs and requiring those that remained to take on extra students. Lawmakers agreed.

Deal subsequently recommended --- and lawmakers approved --- restoring 10 days to the 2012-2013 pre-K school year and returning to the traditional 180-day school year for the current school year. The larger class sizes, resulting in an estimated $30 million annual savings, remain.

The governor was the driving force behind the push to reinstate the days to Georgia pre-K. But he also initiated the cuts that resulted in the loss of experienced teachers. Those are important details that Deal doesn't mention.

We rated Deal's statement as Half True.

STATE MISSING OUT ON MEDICAID MONEY?

Budgetary issues are central to Deal’s refusal to expand the Medicaid health insurance program under the Affordable Care Act.

Deal has argued the move would cost the state $2.5 billion over the next decade. Carter has claimed that figure doesn’t include money the state would get back from the federal government by extending coverage to about 650,000 low-income Georgians now without health insurance.

"There's $30 billion in expansion funds that we've paid --- it's our money and Nathan Deal wants Washington to keep it," Carter in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

The ACA calls for 100 percent reimbursement of costs for expanding Medicaid to newly eligible enrollees in 2015 and 2016 and reimbursement of no less than 90 percent thereafter.

A 2012 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that expansion would bring nearly $34 billion in new federal dollars to Georgia over a decade, according to the study. Georgia's share of the expansion during that time would be $2.5 billion.

Based on that study, Carter would be right to say Georgia is missing out on $34 billion of federal money by not expanding the insurance program, and that's a good overall point. But that is not the same amount of money Georgians are projected to pay in federal taxes for the expansion, or $24 billion.

We rated Carter's statement Half True.