ATLANTA – A new poll out Friday shows Georgians support using some of the state’s record surplus to improve social services by expanding Medicaid and increasing funding for education.  

Capitol Beat News Service
This story also appeared in Capitol Beat News Service

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), a left-leaning think tank in Atlanta, commissioned the poll of 1,099 Georgians through the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. 

The poll found 71.4% of Georgians support full Medicaid expansion. Notably, it showed 56.4% of Republicans and 70% of independents favor full Medicaid expansion, indicating broad bipartisan support for the proposal.   

Expanding Medicaid would cover about 500,000 Georgians at a relatively low cost to the state, advocates contend.  

However, Republican leaders have said they will not consider full Medicaid expansion during this legislative session. Instead, the state will implement GOP Gov. Brian Kemp’s limited expansion this summer that will provide Medicaid to low-income Georgians who meet certain work or education requirements.  

Full Medicaid expansion is a cornerstone of Democrats’ policy agenda. Though the majority of poll respondents appeared to support Medicaid expansion, that has not translated into electoral successes for Democrats in Georgia.  

“When we talk about elections, there are a lot of factors at play … that are going to influence voter choice,” said Danny Kanso, senior budget analyst at GBPI, about the differences between the poll results and how Georgians voted.

“Just because one candidate or another in the previous election had a certain policy as part of their platform, that should not foreclose the opportunity to enact good public policy that is broadly supported across the state.”

Another public health measure, increasing the state’s tobacco tax to the national average of $1.91 per cigarette pack, also garnered the support of 62.8% of poll respondents. That proposal also had support across partisan lines, with the majority of liberals, moderates and conservatives all saying they would like to see the tobacco tax increased.  

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, introduced legislation this week to increase the state’s tobacco tax, although his bill would increase the tax by just 57 cents. 

Georgia Rep. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, has also introduced legislation to create a joint study committee to examine the costs and effects of smoking on the health of Georgians.  

Increasing funding for education also garnered broad support in the poll, with 78.1% of respondents saying they support using state lottery funds to offer universal pre-K to all Georgia children. Only about half of Georgia’s four-year-olds were enrolled in pre-K in 2021, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  

About three-quarters of poll respondents also expressed strong support for providing additional funding to public schools that serve families at or near the poverty level. Forty-four other states already have implemented an “opportunity weight” to help schools serving students from low-income families, Kanso said.  

Around three-quarters of poll respondents supported increasing state funding to help school districts cover school transportation costs. Increases in fuel and labor prices have driven up local districts’ costs. 

While in the past the state helped school districts by covering more than half of transportation costs, by last year that proportion had decreased to about 20%, Kanso said.  

“That is shifting a huge burden down to the local level,” he said.

Poll respondents also supported increased financial aid for students wanting to gain a college degree.  

More than two-thirds, 69%, supported creating a higher education need-based scholarship that would be applied based on a student’s income level, the poll found.  

Georgia is only one of two states that does not have a need-based scholarship. However, this year – for the first time in more than a decade — the state’s merit-based HOPE Scholarship program will cover 100% of tuition at state colleges and universities, if lawmakers approve Kemp’s budget proposal.

One big question hovering over Georgia’s $6.6 billion budget surplus is whether the state should spend the excess revenue on one-time payments such as income and property tax rebates – as Kemp has proposed – or put the money toward ongoing investments in state services.  

The poll showed mixed results on this question. While 46.8% of respondents said the state should use the surplus for ongoing investments in health care and public education, 32.4% said they favor tax rebates. Another 11.1% said the state should not spend the funds at all.  

But when asked a separate question that focused solely on support for a one-time tax rebate, about three-quarters of respondents said they supported the idea. Kemp has proposed a one-time tax rebate of $250 for individuals and $500 for married filers for this year, similar to a rebate issued last year.  

“As we just look back at the 15-year trajectory of the state from the Great Recession to the present, we see a lot of budget cuts that were made and were never backfilled,” Kanso said. “That has created really massive deficits across the state.”

“We need to make up for some of these gaps that we’ve created and return to more of a normal pattern in the future where we can sustain those investments.” 

The 15-question poll was conducted using an online polling service. The results were weighted to reflect Georgia’s voting-age population in terms of race, age, sex and education and had a margin of error of 3.4%.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Rebecca Grapevine is Georgia politics and policy reporter for Capitol Beat News Service. She is an experienced journalist with recent work for Georgia Health News. She earned a bachelor's degree from Washington...