ALBANY -- Key members of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce's Legislative team thanked the area's state legislative delegation for helping to advance their agenda during the last session Monday, while encouraging them to continue their work looking ahead.
Chamber officials showered State Sen. Freddie Powell-Sims and State Representatives Winfred Dukes, Carol Fullerton and Ed Rynders with food and accolades for their teamwork up in Atlanta this Spring.
The one project that seemed to have been mentioned by everyone who took the podium Monday -- both chamber and lawmaker alike -- was the $1.8 million the General Assembly was able put into the budget for the planning of the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building at Albany State University.
"We would just like to thank you for all of the work that you four were able to do, especially in terms of our higher education institutions for the $1.8 million at ASU and the $1.2 million for the student center at Darton," said Jay Smith, Chamber Vice Chair for the Advocacy Division.
Sims told chamber members that she enjoyed the close working relationship with the chamber during the session and welcomed that same level of interaction next year.
"I'm here to let you know just how important you are," Sims said. "Without your help and assistance we wouldn't be able to do the types of things that help further your agenda."
Calling the 2010 gathering of lawmakers an "extraordinary session," Fullerton said that Albany and Dougherty County were fortunate to get the level of funding they did, given the environment the state is in financially, and said that she would like to see more funding go to public education.
"There were a lot of needs and we were very fortunate, as Freddie said, to get the funds for ASU and Darton," Fullerton said. "The fat has been gone for a while and now we're cutting bone...so I'd like to find money to restore some of the cuts to education."
Rynders touted the positives of two highly-publicized new revenue streams for the state that were passed this year -- the Hospital Provider Fee and an adjustment to many fees centered mostly around the court system.
"The reality is that now, in Georgia, if you use a service, you're going to pay for it which is the fairest way to do things, in my mind," Rynders said. "If we want our community to grow, we can't get mired in the negative without facts."
Rynders said that the legislature also passed tax cuts that will save a total of $236 million over the next five years by cutting a portion of senior income taxes and eliminating the state's quarter-mil of property taxes altogether.
Dukes, who as the senior member of the delegation with 14 years in the House, said that the last session was the toughest one he's had since he took office, but said that he too was optimistic that things will get better.
Dukes said he believes the main priority should be on public education and restoring some of the cuts, both in terms of class size and their operating budget, so that Georgia can rise out of the recession with an educated workforce.
"I have literally watched the desecration of public education before my eyes," Dukes said. "There is no way the public education system can perform the task of educating our children under these circumstances."
Dukes said that the General Assembly needs to focus on the keys that will make Georgia great -- education, transportation and water management.
"We've had hard times before and survived them, and we will survive now," Dukes said.