As a Democratic candidate for governor, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams advocates expanding Medicaid using the 90 percent federal funding still available. She wants the state to invest in child care and clean-energy jobs.
Education, the economy and “making sure that government works” are the three issues she finds of greatest concern to Georgians, Abrams said in an interview Tuesday in Statesboro. And the first of these, she said, is education.
“That’s central not only to every family but to every business,” Abrams said. “We want strong, bold, ambitious children, but we also want a strong work force and making sure that we think about how do we educate our children from cradle to career.”
She also advocates working with Republicans in state government to accomplish what can actually be achieved. But Abrams says that Republican candidates who are promising spending caps and tax cuts are mistaken about the needs of a growing Georgia.
Abrams, an Atlanta resident, was a state representative from 2007 and minority leader, chosen by House Democrats to lead their caucus, from 2010 until she resigned from both roles this summer to campaign. Now 44, Abrams was born in Mississippi but graduated from high school in Georgia. She was also an honor graduate at Spelman College, studied public policy at the University of Texas at Austin and attained her juris doctorate at Yale Law School.
She visited the Statesboro Herald in the afternoon before meeting supporters for a Tuesday evening reception at Luetta Moore Park.
Abrams calls her education and childcare proposal “Bold Action for a Brighter Future.” It would create a scholarship program for parents spending a certain portion of their income on child care and a tax credit for child care workers who get further education in their field.
She has estimated the cost at $350 million a year, and proposes paying for it by eliminating tax loopholes and a program that allocates about $58 million in tax credits to organizations that support private school scholarships, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported in November.
“There are 800,000 Georgians who live in child care deserts, which means their children don’t have access to high-quality child care, and that has a long-term effect on our educational status,” Abrams said Tuesday.
Another part of her early childhood education strategy is to make certain that the state’s prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds is “truly universal.”
Currently, schools and day care centers that host prekindergarten classes are funded for only a certain number of students. Abrams proposes making the program available to all 4-year-olds and expanding it to 3-year-olds.
Doing this also “means getting more teachers in the classroom and making sure the teachers in those classrooms are paid a wage that allows them to stay,” she said. In Georgia’s Pre-K program, the minimum salary for an assistant teacher is currently less than $16,000 a year, Abrams noted.
Talking about Georgia’s other lottery-funded programs, the HOPE scholarships and grants, Abrams said the state should “make certain that technical college is free” and expand access to higher education. She proposes adding a need-based financial aid program, which she calls HOPE 2, to the existing grades-based scholarships.
“Georgia loses thousands of college students every year simply because they lack between $500 and $5,000 for education, and that’s a waste for the state of Georgia, and it’s increasing our skills gap and decreasing our college completion rate, but if we can close that, Georgia will continue to be one of the most competitive states in the nation,” she said.
For the economy, one of Abrams’ ideas is an “Advanced Energy Jobs Plan.” She observes that Georgia has access to the four major types of renewable energy – hydro, biomass, wind and solar – and that this is not true for every state.
“Based on our research, which looks at the work that’s been done at Georgia Tech and other places, Georgia could create between 25,000 and 45,000 new jobs in the next decade,” Abrams said, “and those jobs would be across-the-board, installation, construction, manufacturing, but also accounting, and it could create a number of small businesses.”
To spur advanced-energy investment, she proposes a Georgia Green Bank offering low-interest loans and has suggested that the state, by investing $40 million annually, could spur $200 million to $250 million in private capital financing. She also proposes building on existing tax incentive programs.
The Medicaid expansion, which most states participate in but Georgia and 17 other states have continued to reject, was introduced at the federal level by President Barack Obama during his Democratic administration. It was meant to work in unison with the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” much assailed by Republicans with repeal attempts this year.
But so far, federal Medicaid expansion funding remains intact. Abrams proposes that Georgia should change course and take advantage of it to provide Medicaid-funded healthcare access to between 500,000 and 700,000 additional Georgians.
Because other federal funding sources were shifted into the Medicaid expansion, the state in rejecting it lost some funding it previously received.
“By refusing to expand Medicaid we have forced the collapse of rural hospitals, we’ve put our regional hospitals in jeopardy, we have fewer doctors in the places where we need them, and we have put in jeopardy not only our families by our livelihoods,” Abrams said.
The expansion, she asserts, would also create about 56,000 new jobs in a decade.
Georgia and other states that declined the expansion missed out on the first three years of 100 percent federal funding. But phased steps of 95 percent to 90 percent federal support remain, so at worst Georgia would have to put in $3 billion over the next eight years to draw down $30 billion in health care funding, she said.
Could she do it?
As House minority leader, Abrams annually introduced legislation to expand Medicaid, but these efforts went nowhere in Georgia’s Republican-majority Legislature. Does she think she would have better success with Medicaid expansion as governor?
“I do, because each year when I introduced the Medicaid expansion bill, Republicans would come up to me quietly to tell me they knew I was right, they just didn’t see the ability to get it done under a Republican governor who said ‘no,’” and what I want them to know is I’m going to say ‘yes,’ because these hospitals exist in Democratic and Republican areas,” Abrams said.
The Democratic and Republican primaries will be held May 22 and the general election Nov. 6.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.