Top Drafter of Georgia’s $27 Billion Budget Looks to 2022

Credit: Beau Evans (State Affairs)

Key Points
  • Playmaker: State Rep. Terry England
  • Role: Chairman of the Georgia House Appropriations Committee
  • Tenure: January 2005 to present

Terry England was on a fifth-grade field trip when he first stepped inside Georgia’s House of Representatives at the State Capitol in Atlanta. Little did he know then that he’d become one of the chamber’s most important members, leading debate over the state’s $27 billion budget as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

England, a Republican from Barrow County, has overseen passage of 24 state budgets over his 12 legislative sessions as the House’s top budget-drafter. He’s one of the few state lawmakers who knows every nook and cranny of the budget, which funds Georgia’s public schools and colleges, Medicaid programs, state law enforcement, mental-health services and more than 68,000 government workers.

England’s tenure has seen fund increases for high-speed internet and career training in public schools, all while the state rebounded from the 2008 economic recession. It’s also faced constant criticism from Democratic lawmakers opposed to spending cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Republican-controlled legislature’s refusal to fully expand Medicaid coverage. England and the General Assembly now head to the 2022 legislative session in January with a dire need to bump up salaries for state employees, many of whom have left their taxpayer-funded jobs for better pay in the private sector.

State Affairs recently spoke with England about his road to the state legislature and his priorities for the upcoming legislative session. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

State Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn) has served in the Georgia House of Representatives since 2005. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

Why is the state budget important for Georgia?

“The money kind of sets priorities for what gets done,” England said. “A lot of what really makes things happen are tied or related to the budget. We make all kinds of laws every session, but the only thing that the constitution of the state requires us to do is pass a balanced budget.”

England was elected to Georgia’s House District 116 covering most of Barrow County in 2004. Right off the bat, he recognized the massive political influence of the state’s now-$27 billion as the course-setter for all other policy decisions. The budget is a bigger money pot than anything else in Georgia save for The Home Depot, UPS and The Coca-Cola Company. England dove in, first becoming chair of a subcommittee that handles public school funding – which takes up half the entire budget – before rising to head the full appropriations committee in 2011. 

State lawmakers get to work in the Georgia House of Representatives during the 2021 legislative session. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

Why hasn’t Georgia fully expanded Medicaid?

“We don’t have the option to print money like the feds do,” England said. “We have to make sure we balance the budget every year that we pass it.”

Georgia is one of 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid coverage to people with incomes up to 138% below the federal poverty level. Coverage in Georgia is now available for adult residents with incomes about 35% below the poverty line. The federal government has pledged to cover 90% of the cost to fully expand Medicaid, with the states paying the rest. Democratic lawmakers in Georgia have long called for full expansion, while Republican leaders have urged partial expansion amid concerns that federal officials could walk back their cost-sharing commitment. England estimates Georgia’s budget would need to cover between $250 million and $400 million a year to expand Medicaid coverage at the current cost-sharing method.

“We’ve got all these programs that the feds came in and said if you do this, we’ll pay 90% or 95%, and then 10 years down the road, now they’re paying 50% and you’re paying 50%,” England said. “Then you wind up with areas that you can’t cut (like Medicaid). That concentrates it that much more on those areas that you can cut and makes those cuts that much more severe.”

This map from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows which states have approved full Medicaid expansion and which have not. (Credit: Kaiser Family Foundation)

What is the top budget priority for Georgia in 2022?

“We’re losing people to McDonald’s,” England said. “Plain and simple. They’re paying more per hour…. It is across the board in every sector of state government that we see. Health care, law enforcement, corrections, (environmental protection): all of those agencies are having those issues right now.”

Bolstering state workers’ pay has become a major focus of the 2022 legislative session amid turnover from higher wages in the private sector, England said. He did not offer specifics on what lawmakers may do about staff wages, but highlighted that around 9,500 full-time state employees currently make $29,000 a year, marking an unsustainable pay grade.

“I think we’re certainly going to have to look at, for lack of a better term, parity to get some of those folks especially on the lower end of the wage scale up to be competitive with the other opportunities that are out there for them,” England said. “At least get the per-hour wage up to something that is competitive with the private sector now.”

Many state employees in Georgia work at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building in Atlanta. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

What is the professional path that led to your current role?

“Very fortunate to have two incredible parents who taught me a lot about business and how you’re supposed to treat folks,” England said. “The cool thing about growing up in a family of carpenters and contractors is being able to ride around town and point to this house or that building over there, and say we built that one.”

England grew up in small-town Georgia back when Barrow County was strictly rural. (The county has grown in recent years as nearby metro Atlanta expanded.) He studied a bit at the University of Georgia before leaving to join the family construction business. He bought a farming supply store in the late 1990s and ran it until 2012, when his budget responsibilities picked up steam in the legislature.

Georgia lawmakers head to the State Capitol each January to pass bills and the budget during legislative sessions. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

What is a defining moment in your life or career that helped guide you to this role?

“It was actually a fifth-grade field trip,” England said. “We went into the Senate chamber and something about it didn’t feel right. But we walked in the House chamber, and even though the House chamber is significantly larger than the Senate chamber, it just was one of those places that I felt comfortable in.”

That class visit got the idea stuck in England’s head that he’d “like to go back there and be a member and serve.” He’s done so now for the last 17 years, making him one of the General Assembly’s longer-serving members.

“Fifth grade, I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about,” England said. “I just knew there was something that felt right about it…. I always enjoyed politics, enjoyed watching how government works.”

State lawmakers mingle in the Georgia House of Representatives shortly after ending the 2021 legislative session. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

What are your most major accomplishments throughout your career?

“I like to think that we’ve made a big impression on k-12 education around the state,” England said. “It’s not always about the dollars of how you make an impact in education.”

England highlights his work on increasing funds for agricultural education and career-training programs in Georgia public schools as a highlight of his political career. He also noted an occasion when he helped stop a vocational rehabilitation facility from closing in Warm Springs. Much of the work he’s most proud of never makes the news headlines, he said.

“A lot of things like that that will never be written about, I’ll carry to my grave with me and just know we hit a good lick right there,” England said. “Didn’t tell anybody, we just went and did it because it was the right thing to do and it helped somebody.”

Georgia lawmakers meet at the State Capitol in Atlanta each year for legislative sessions. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

What are your plans for what you want to accomplish going forward?

“A community without health care has no hope of economic development,” England said. “We understand that as soon as one of those (hospitals) closes, the hope of economic development in that community diminishes greatly.”

England has set rural issues as a main focus for the rest of his political career. Georgia’s large rural areas have faced hospital closures, lack of high-speed internet and challenges with securing workforce housing. Affordable housing issues, in particular, mark an area where England wants local and state officials to work harder on improving into the future.

“I don’t have an answer to it and it’s something that I’ve struggled with,” England said. “That is an issue that I don’t know that any of us have a good answer to just yet. And it’s not for lack of trying. Nobody else has figured it out, either. I think everybody across the nation is struggling with that.”

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