ALBANY, Ga.: The senator and representatives who serve the Albany Metro Area gave their take on the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly during a breakfast sponsored by the Albany-Area Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.
Senator Freddie Powell-Sims, D-Dawson; Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany; Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg; and Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany; each spoke to chamber members about the challenges and concerns that legislators will likely face as the General Assembly reconvenes in the coming weeks.
While each presented their own take on many of the issues facing Georgians and Southwest Georgians specifically, each mentioned certain perennial topics such as education, conservation and tax reform as likely focal points for legislators.
Sims told the members that revenues for October were largely up in what she said she hoped was a positive trend in the making, but said that despite the hopeful signs that the state may finally be digging itself out of an economic abyss, piecing together a budget that will meet the needs of all Georgians will be a challenge.
"It's going to be a challenge for those of us who deal with the budget to find the money to cover the needs of all the new Georgians who continue to make this state their home," Sims said. "It's encouraging that revenues are up, but we still must be careful in how we approach the budget process."
Sims said that protecting South Georgia water from Atlanta was going to be a "challenge," but that "we have no intentions of sharing,"
Sims also said that she intends to support funding for a "Career Academy," to be developed as a collaborative effort between the Dougherty County School System and Albany Tech, Darton and Albany State University to help give students the skills they need to be more likely to find good work.
Rep. Dukes, the senior member of the delegation also mentioned the career academy as a means to help entice industry and business to Albany by helping create a "skilled workforce," which he said was key to economic growth.
Dukes said he would continue to work to increase transportation infrastructure, such as the widening of Georgia State Road 133, and, like Sims, said he would fight to protect our water resources saying that our water is vital to sustaining agriculture.
"All of us know just how important agriculture is to our area, so to have that infringed upon could be devastating for our area," Dukes said.
Dukes also spoke of a looming $1.5 billion funding gap in the state's educational system, suggesting that one place a special tax review committee could look would be to what he said was $10 billion in tax exemptions granted to a variety of different entities.
Rep. Ed Rynders, the lone Republican representative in the Metro Albany area, called the upcoming reapportionment process the "big elephant in the room," saying that with growth in Southwest Georgia slower than that in Metro Atlanta, that region of Georgia will have more representatives than the rest of the state combined --- a first in state history.
"That means that we're going to have to really be on our game if we want to accomplish important items like protecting our water," Rynders said.
Rynders referenced Dukes' statement about cutting the exemptions by asking for caution, saying that eliminating exemptions frivolously could have negative implications to economic development.
Referencing Procter & Gamble and how they are the state's second largest consumer of energy in terms of industry, Rynders said that since Atlanta's representation will outnumber Southwest Georgia's, it could become a challenge to try and repeal the tax on energy despite the fact that Georgia is the only state in the Southeast that has one.
"The environment we're facing is raise taxes, just don't raise mine. Cut government, just don't cut the services I use," Rynders said. "... One person's economic development tool to save jobs is another person's special interest tax break."
Rynders also mentioned the challenge legislators will have trying to save the HOPE Scholarship fund next year, especially if the board of Regents continues to raise tuition. He floated a proposal to tie tuition increases to the rate of inflation to keep both in check.
Rep. Carol Fullerton, the newest member of the delegation, said that she hopes to keep her committee assignments given the change in leadership at the state level, saying that they each consider issues vital to southwest Georgians.
"The key for all of us is, from day-to-day we're on one (political) side or the other, but that, for the most part, we're in the middle and we're able to reach across the our friends on the other side of the aisle to get the needs of the constituents addressed," Fullerton said.
Like her colleagues, Fullerton said that water would be a priority, as would securing the $27 million for construction of the Ray Charles Fine Arts building at Albany State University as well as addressing the needs of Darton and Albany Tech.
"Finding $27 million in this budget will be tough but it doesn't mean we won't try," Fullerton said.
She also said that reapportionment would be a challenge and that it was important for all of the community government's and agencies to come to the table to help them represent the needs of people in the area.
As for the chamber, they've developed their own set of legislative initiatives and priorities they will push the legislature for during the session.
These include support of the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building, opposing reductions in Medicaid reimbursement rates, ensuring the sales tax exemptions for not-for-profit hospitals and energy for industry.
The group is also asking for continued focus on the widening of Highway 133 to benefit Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, opposing inter-basin transfers of water, revisit trauma care and tourism development.