Bibb legislative delegation urges regionalism as solution to economic challenges

lfabian@macon.comNovember 13, 2012 

A week after the election, Bibb County’s new legislative delegation shared breakfast Tuesday morning with the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

Regionalism as the key to overcoming economic challenges provided the most food for thought as lawmakers addressed those gathered at the Douglass Theatre.

“It’s a challenging time to be about this business of state government,” said Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon. “We face enormous challenges, not unlike those facing the federal government.”

Georgia is constitutionally obligated to balance its budget, which will mean more cuts in state spending next legislative session.

Staton said Georgia needs to be poised to create jobs when recovery comes.

Turf battles can hinder economic growth if Middle Georgia counties only work to bring industry to their communities, said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.

“I’m very optimistic about the future of Middle Georgia,” Peake said. “I really hope we can buy into a vision of thinking regionally.”

Macon’s David Lucas has attended countless delegation meetings in his 37 years in the Georgia House of Representatives, but this was his first as senator-elect for District 26.

Lucas, who said he was glad to be back after a year off, said he wished Middle Georgians had approved the regional T-SPLOST to provide money for local transportation projects.

Lucas said he did not publicly support the tax, but personally voted for it because he realized it was the only way to fund needed projects after lawmakers restructured funding for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The Interstate 75 interchange with Interstate 16 will eventually be built, but he fears waking up one foggy morning to several dozen cars piled up on the dangerous stretch of highway.

“What this state needs to do is come up with new ways of increasing revenue,” Lucas said. “We have some tough choices ahead of use and we’re probably going to have some disagreements about what is done.”

Lawmakers took questions from the audience, including one about how Georgia would assist small-business owners in complying with the Affordable Health Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.

Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, who has a doctorate in optometry, said he has found useful information about the federal law through the Kaiser Family Foundation website, www.kff.org.

Beverly said he did not expect President Barack Obama’s plan to have a major effect on businesses with fewer than 50 workers.

Peake, who owns restaurants, disagreed.

He expects an additional cost of $750,000 to $1 million each year.

“It’s going to have a significant impact on my business,” Peake said. “For the hospitality industry, in particular, it will be devastating.”

Peake predicts many restaurant owners will reduce their number of full-time workers.

The federal government will only pay for the first three years of the Medicaid expansion and then Georgia taxpayers will have to fully foot the bill.

Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, said he hopes his district’s agriculture industry will grow more jobs locally.

He and Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, also believe the delegation should foster better regional cooperation to grow the local economy.

Another audience-submitted question asked how the lawmakers would make government smaller.

“We kinda did that locally, didn’t we?” asked Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, who chairs the delegation that agreed to the consolidation bill passed by voters this summer.

Staton replied that after years of deep budget cuts, Georgia does have smaller government.

Peake also pointed out that the number of state workers has dropped more than 10 percent in the past decade as a million more people are now living in Georgia.

Randall warned that too many job cuts can affect how her constituents deal with government and create more red tape.

“Be careful what you ask for,” she said.

The newest member of the Bibb delegation was the only one absent Tuesday morning.

Senator-elect Burt Jones of District 25, a Jackson businessman and former University of Georgia football captain, had a prior commitment, Randall said.

Jones beat Milledgeville incumbent Sen. Johnny Grant in the Republican primary and went on to defeat Democrat Darrell Black last week in District 25.

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