State representatives speak on recent bills

ALBANY, Ga. -- State representatives Winfred Dukes, District 154 (D-Albany); Carol Fullerton, District 153 (D-Albany) and State Senator Freddie Powell Sims, District 12 (D-Dawson) spoke to local citizens Saturday at special town hall meeting hosted by Jon Howard, Ward 1 City Commissioner. Representative Gerald Greene, District 151 (R-Cuthbert) was scheduled to attend the meeting was reportedly recovering from gall bladder surgery.

Attending representatives spoke in broad terms explaining bills passed at the recent Georgia general assembly in Atlanta with major topics centered mostly toward education and the economic status of the state.

"Georgia has experienced a tremendous growth population growth in recent years," Sims began. "If you remember Hurricane Katrina, a lot of the residents from Louisiana came to Georgia and they didn't leave. Some of them found jobs and some of them didn't, but it brings additional stress on government because we must provide services to those additional residents."

According to Sims, a retired public school teacher, the Georgia budget of $19.9 billion is based on a speculative 5 percent growth in state revenue taxes. However, because the state's "rainy day" reserve fund is being replenished from raids in recent years, spending was limited for certain items. Still, K-12 education did receive something of a boost, Sims said.

"We added funds to increase school days for the lottery pre-K program back to 180 days," Sims said. "In the state of Georgia we feel it is important to educate our children at very young ages. When they're that young they soak up everything."

Sims said $146.6 million was provided from the budget to cover an increased student K-12 enrollment, for additional teacher training. and for school nurses.

While not a consideration for Dougherty and other more affluent counties, Sims said a previous cut of $2.6 million was restored to provide "sparsity grants," to poorer counties such as Clay, Quitman, Randolph or Baker Counties. Also in the budget was a $69.8 mandated annual contribution to the teacher's retirement plan, Sims said.

Sims mentioned to the group of of some 50 citizens, city officials and school board members that a growing education trend in Georgia and elsewhere is the move toward charter schools. According to Sims and other representatives, charter schools "get more money," to the tune of $2,900 per student, vs. $5,000 per charter school student.

Winfred Dukes continued further with the education topic, striking deep into what he said were root causes for shortages of budget funding. As an example, Dukes cited Delta Airlines, a Georgia-based company, saying three years ago Delta was exempted from paying sales tax on gasoline.

"That was a year Delta had made $4 billion in revenue," Dukes said. "They made $539 million in net income and gave out bonuses of $13.3 million and the top two guys got $14 million. Everybody should have to pay their fair share."

Moving on, Dukes said progress was made in the general assembly toward revising the juvenile justice system in Georgia and curbing what Dukes claims is the $93,000 annual cost of incarceration for each underage offender.

"(Juveniles) are different from the adult prison population," Dukes said. They're juveniles, so the state is obligated to provide them with an education. If you're 12 years old and have to got to a youth development center, you probably have some psychological issues somewhere."

Dukes said the ultimate hope was to implement small group homes for the purpose of keeping juvenile offenders.

"They'll be watched around the clock," Dukes said, but they'll still have an opportunity to interact with kids in the public school system. There will still be psychological and health care, but the cost will be a lot less and probably a lot better for the kids."

Carol Fullerton said that one of the "big" things accomplished in part by the Southwest Georgia representatives was to defeat a bill allowing guns to be carried into schools and college campuses.

"I'm all for people having guns for personal protection and to hunt with," Fullerton said. "But you don't need assault weapons for that, and certainly college -- sometimes with the alcohol factor there -- is just not a good mix with firearms."

For a more complete list of bills passed during the 2013 Georgia General Assembly, go to www.senate.ga.gov/sro/Documents/Highlights/2013Highlights.pdf