ALBANY Albany and Dougherty County's legislative delegation briefed members of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce Wednesday on what issues will likely surface during the upcoming 2012 session of the General Assembly with tax reform and water issues likely to be the issues to have the biggest impact on Southwest Georgia.
Rep. Winfred Dukes, Rep. Ed Rynders, and Rep. Carol Fullerton each spoke to chamber members who attended Wednesday's Rise N' Shine Legislative breakfast. Sen. Freddie Powell-Sims was scheduled to attend but had a death in the family, officials said.
Dukes, Albany's senior member of the delegation, was the first to address the crowd and said that the budget would again be a challenge but that tax reform and the restoration of some funding to the state's educational system would likely set the tone for any financial discussions.
Both Dukes and Rynders spoke of the need to cull Georgia's sales tax on energy as a mechanism to create jobs. The tax is viewed as a burden for manufacturers like Procter & Gamble have to pay up in Georgia while many of the state's neighbors have little or no such tax.
When it comes to education, Dukes said that since the state is starting to recover economically -- he pointed to an increase of more than $339 million in the state's general fund now over the same time last year -- cuts to the state's educational system should be restored.
"We can't be a 21st century Georgia and not educate our children," Dukes said. "There is no greater inheritance we can leave to the people's children's children than a quality education."
Dukes also said that the state will face a looming payment to the federal government for its obligation to the unemployment trust fund. Last year, the state made a $26 million payment that covered the interest obligation on the debt, but didn't address the principal which Dukes says stands at more than $700 million.
"It's something you don't hear a lot about, but it's something that we're really going to have to address this year," Dukes said.
Rynders was next up to speak.
Speaking on the energy tax, he said that it would likely be part of a larger, more comprehensive tax reform bill that could be rolled out as early as next week. A similar comprehensive tax overhaul met with resistance last year in the General Assembly but failed to pass. Rynders reminded those present that not everyone around the state shares the same opinion of certain tax cuts.
"While to one person it may be a special interest tax break for big business, it may mean economic development and job creation for our area," Rynders said. "So just keep that in mind."
Rynders will be drawn out of Dougherty County if the courts approve the current redistricting plan that's been signed by Gov. Nathan Deal.
In what he said could be his final legislative breakfast with the group, Rynders said he believes it important to embrace the concept of regionalism and get past the infighting that exists between Albany, Dougherty County and Lee County and that the local and state leaders strive be innovative to overcome the region's obstacles.
"As a representative I've got to recognize the regional importance of Albany and Southwest Georgia. The truth of the matter is, we're joined at the hip," Rynders said. "We're not going to win; we're not going to strive; we're not going to overcome being the fourth poorest city in the nation; or overcome the crime and the gangs; or overcome two-thirds of babies born here being Medicaid babies if we keep doing things the way they've always done and people keep playing to their political bases...I'm tired of my colleagues in Atlanta saying 'well Albany's a mess isn't it?"
Rounding up the delegation's presentation was Fullerton, who vowed to continue fighting Atlanta to protect the region's water supply.
"I think we have an obligation to keep our water clean and available for everyone in the state and that doesn't mean Atlanta gets to dam up and build reservoirs on rivers for water for themselves," Fullerton said.
On education, Fullerton spoke of the Board of Regents push to merge colleges across the state, saying that the merger of Darton and Albany State University had a "good chance" of being on the regents' list.
"There's a good chance that we're on the list," Fullerton said. "We need to use all of our power and personal connections, if that occurs, to make that as smooth of a transition as possible."
Fullerton also said that she would work to get the last remaining funding for the construction of the Ray Charles Fine Arts Center into the budget for next year and that she was co-sponsoring a bill that would lower the population required for Probate Judges to be attorneys.