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Officials discuss issues with state delegation

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ALBANY, Ga. -- Local elected officials, business leaders and educational authorities pitched their legislative agendas to the area's state legislative delegation during a series of meetings at the government center Thursday.

State Reps. Winfred Dukes and Ed Rynders, and State Sen. Freddie Powell-Sims are meeting with various local government bodies to hear their priorities for the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly. Rep. Carol Fullerton was absent touring Plant Vogtle on behalf of the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission.

It was a full day for the three as they heard the concerns and priorities for the Dougherty County Commission, the Dougherty County School Board, the Albany City Commission, the Albany-Area Chamber of Commerce, Albany State University and Albany Technical College.

During the county's session Thursday, the chief points of discussion were prevention of inter-basin transfers and an overhaul of the state's current tax code.

In discussing the transfers, the commission strongly urged the delegation to stick to their guns in preventing the measure which some view would allow Atlanta to transfer water out of the Floridan aquifer or Flint River basin and use it in Atlanta.

In speaking on tax reform the commission urged the three to help create a "fair playing field," when it comes to taxes. Discussion ranged from eliminating or reducing certain non-profit exemptions to taking a look at Internet purchase sales taxes.

Dukes also referenced a study done in Hall County by the Georgia Department of Revenue he said showed that as many as 25 percent of their businesses had collected, but failed to pay sales taxes.

Rynders reminded commissioners that, with redistricting set to begin this year, the face of the General Assembly is expected to change rather dramatically. For the first time in the state's history, representatives from the metro Atlanta counties will outnumber the representatives from the rest of Georgia combined.

That change will mean that, especially in terms of the water issue, short of a veto from the governor, there would be nothing stopping a concerted and unified effort from the Atlanta contingent from pumping water out of other parts of the state.

County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard asked the three to work to not shift the state's financial burdens onto local government.

"Please don't shift the burden to us if you don't have the money for something. Neither do we," Sinyard said. "Please don't let anymore trickle this way, we don't have anywhere to get it."

The Dougherty County School System took a bit of a different approach as Supt. Joshua Murfree presented what essentially was a wish list of what the system wanted from the delegation and what they didn't want from the delegation.

At the top of the list was support for a consistent curriculum, followed by a phase-out of the Georgia High School Graduation Test in favor of something more in line with end-of-course testing, and increased funds for school districts with high numbers of free and reduced lunch programs as well as an increase in the number of HOPE scholars.

What Murfree and board members said they didn't want were any more cuts to funding for K-12 education.

Finally, the group asked the delegation to support ending furlough days for staff and employees.

Murfree and the board also asked the delegation for support to streamline online testing and teaching, a move they say will increase their full-time-equivalent numbers and subsequently their funding.

Murfree told the delegation that the system lost $2.2 million this year to students leaving the system going to home schooling, private schools, or other educational alternatives and that online learning could be an option to help keep those funds from leaving the system.

While the delegation largely seemed supportive of the board's message, they were realistic about some of their requests.

At more than 50 percent of the state budget, education will like be targeted for more cuts, Dukes said.

"We're going to try and maintain funding, but it's going to tough. It's going to be a fight," Dukes said.

Rynders was less optimistic.

"What do you want me to tell the wife of the state trooper who has to have their pay cut, to take more furlough days than teachers and yet has to buy the same groceries as your teachers?" Rynders said. "Where do we cut? We have to make up $1.5 billion somewhere and education, public safety and healthcare make up 80 percent of the budget."

The delegation again acknowledged that there are significant amounts of taxes that go uncollected each year and that a comprehensive tax reform committee has been formed to find out those revenues to hopefully soften the blow.

"All we're asking is to find other places to cut before you cut K-12 because it affects everyone you're speaking to here today. Industry, government, everything depends on education," Board Member Velvet Riggins said.

The Albany City Commission offered the delegation five different policy areas where it would like to see progress made.

The first on the list was "new and innovative" funding sources for transportation projects. City Engineer Bruce Maples, who gave the presentation to the delegation, pointed to two projects specifically -- the widening of Georgia Highway133 and the construction of a Westover extension project which would connect Westover Boulevard to Ledo Road.

Again, the issue of full collection of sales and use taxes came up as second on the list, followed by consideration of local legislation enabling cities to hold referendums on Municipal Option Sales Taxes to offset property taxes.

The city is asking the delegation to oppose unfunded mandates from the state and any legislation that would put caps on the city's ability to "respond to and meet the needs of its residents."

Finally, the city asked that the delegation continue to support budget requests benefiting Albany State University, Darton College and Albany Technical College.

Commissioner Jon Howard asked the delegation to consider pushing legislation that would lead to harsher penalties for juvenile crime.

Albany Mayor Willie Adams said, while it may be uncomfortable politically, he would like the delegation to consider legislation that would make an "inverse incentive," for teenage mothers to have children by reducing the amount of state aid that is given to mothers for multiple births, while lowering the age at which they can elect to have tubal ligation to prevent additional pregnancy.

Georgia law currently puts the age when a woman can elect to have the surgery at 21, but Adams, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist, says he has had 18 year-old mothers with multiple children asking to have the procedure done only to be told they can't.

With two-thirds of the births in Southwest Georgia Medicaid babies, Adams said that something has to be done to stem the tied of teenage pregnancy, which he said was contributing to generational poverty.