Governor Nathan Deal delivered his seventh annual State of the State address on Wednesday, January 11, before a joint session of the House and Senate. During this annual speech, the governor presented the current conditions and goals of our state government for the year ahead.
Since 2011, our state's unemployment rate has dropped from 10.4 percent to 5.3 percent; our Rainy Day Fund has increased from a low $116 million to approximately $2.033 billion; Georgia has maintained a AAA bond rating; and the state has set new records in trade, film production and tourism. Additionally, new private sector jobs have reached more than 575,000, and for four consecutive years, Georgia has been named the No. 1 state in the country in which to do business.
Gov. Deal went on to mention that due to the state's economic success and projected revenue growth in the upcoming fiscal year, Georgia will be able to continue to support its existing vital programs, as well as address new areas that require the state's attention. For example, in September 2016, Gov. Deal announced two monumental statewide law enforcement improvements that the General Assembly will review this session: a 20 percent pay raise for state-level law enforcement officers and an overhaul and expansion of officer training courses.
Gov. Deal's Fiscal Year 2018 budget recommendations, which he also released this week, include this pay increase for these public service men and women. Further, the officer training courses would focus on deescalating violence, community policing and alternatives to deadly force, as well as providing access to local law enforcement for Crisis Intervention Training. Gov. Deal noted that following this announcement last fall, the Georgia State Patrol had more new applications in one month than it had had in the entire previous year.
Our law enforcement officers protect the lives of all Georgians every day, and I commend Gov. Deal's effort to reward them for their service to our state and its citizens.
The governor's address also focused on providing a better quality of life through access to quality healthcare services for another group of brave and selfless Georgians: Georgia's veteran and active duty military personnel. Our state is home to 61,288 active military members, 27,233 reservists and 752,000 veterans, and nearly one in four active military personnel show signs of a mental health condition. Because of our state's large military population, Gov. Deal encouraged the allocation of funds by the General Assembly to train existing state and federal employees to more efficiently and effectively assist our veterans and improve access to mental health services.
Additionally, the governor called for the creation and funding for a Women Veterans Coordinator position to work with female veterans who have suffered military sexual trauma, to offer counseling and to assist with veteran's claims and appeals. Finally, in an effort to aid veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, Gov. Deal hopes to secure funding in the state budget for the construction of a rehabilitation facility to provide behavioral health services to these individuals.
Our veterans and active duty military personnel make tremendous sacrifices to protect our freedom, and as lawmakers, it is our responsibility to ensure that these men and women have access to the healthcare services they need.
In addition to improving healthcare benefits for our military population, Gov. Deal also spoke on the importance of enhancing healthcare benefits for our youngest citizens. He recommended to consider legislation this session to allow Medicaid and State Health Benefit Plan coverage for treatments of those diagnosed with autism up to the age of 21, as well as an expansion of coverage to treat children with behavioral and mental health issues from birth to age four.
Currently, community behavioral health services are only offered to Medicaid and PeachCare members age four and up. I truly believe it is important that we treat, diagnose, and offer the proper care at the earliest stage possible for children with behavioral and mental health issues.
In his remarks, the governor also reminded us of his recent action last month to address the growing and critical statewide opioid addiction epidemic that has affected the lives of so many Georgians. Deal signed an executive order directing the Department of Public Health to allow pharmacists to distribute naloxone, an emergency drug used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, over-the-counter. He also requested that the Georgia Board of Pharmacy remove this drug from the dangerous drug list, and as a result, lives have already been saved.
Gov. Deal also unveiled plans for the development of the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, a $50 million state-owned facility designed to promote innovation in cybersecurity technology. This education and training center, in conjunction with the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency, will be instrumental in teaching and preparing students to combat cyber-attacks. The facility, which will serve to enhance American cybersecurity in both the public and private arenas, will also house a cybercrime lab operated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. With the addition of the Cyber Innovation and Training Center, Georgia will truly be at the forefront of our nation's effort to both prevent and fight cyber-attacks.
Finally, the governor discussed his continued plans and legislative agenda to improve Georgia's education system, a goal that has remained consistent throughout his time in office. He noted that Georgia's graduation rate has significantly improved since he took office, jumping from 64.7 percent in 2011 to 79.2 percent today, and he attributed this significant achievement to the dedicated teachers working with our students on a daily basis. In recognition of the diligent work of Georgia's educators, Gov. Deal included a two percent salary increase built into the pay scale for all teaching positions in his budget recommendations, in addition to the three percent merit pay increase for teachers in the budget for the current fiscal year.
After announcing his goals for the upcoming legislative session in the State of the State Address, Gov. Deal released his budget recommendations on Wednesday, January 11. Highlights of the Amended Fiscal Year 2017 budget include $50 million for the new Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in Augusta and $27.3 million for a 20 percent increase in salary for law enforcement officers.
In his Fiscal Year 2018 budget, Gov. Deal set aside over $300 million to provide salary increases for our state's critical personnel, including law enforcement officers, teachers, criminal investigators, Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) caseworkers, and environmental health personnel.
The General Assembly will now use Gov. Deal's budget recommendations as a model for the state's budget. I will provide you with more information next week once we carefully review these recommendations in our Joint Budget Hearings with the Senate.