Macon leaders seek regional concord in Legislature

mlee@macon.comFebruary 26, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Macon’s big wheels rolled up to the state Capitol on Tuesday for an annual visit with state legislators, urging them to tend to funding for transportation and Robins Air Force Base, and to cooperate with neighboring counties.

“We’re very involved in trying to work with Houston County, Gray, Twiggs, Jones and others in the Middle Georgia region to try and develop a more regional presence,” said Mike Dyer, president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

He made the comment at the state Capitol, just hours after some 100 Maconites piled off two buses in Atlanta on the Macon Day trip organized by the Chamber and the Macon Economic Development Commission.

“We know most parts of the state that have regionalized are very successful” at leveraging both state and federal money, and “we are missing the boat,” Dyer said.

The chamber put transportation at the top of its legislative agenda. It is pushing for an extension of Sardis Church Road from the new proposed terminus at Ga. 247 to Sgoda Road on Interstate 16, then onto Ga. 57 in Jones County.

Such a build would “allow the base to perhaps open up a north gate,” Dyer said.

Middle Georgia voters as a whole rejected a 10-year, one-cent transportation sales tax in 2012 that would have funded part of such a project, though Bibb County voters themselves wanted it.

But for another vote on nine-figure transportation funds, Middle Georgia probably will have to wait at least three years, said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, based on what he’s learned as secretary of the House Transportation Committee. A bill authorizing a vote would have to get through the Legislature, which is already more than half-done with its annual session.

“At this point it’s going to have to be done on a regional basis, not statewide,” said Epps. “The initiative to bring forth legislation (for a referendum) is going have to come from local governments in the Middle Georgia region.”

The chamber also is pushing to extend the runway at Middle Georgia Regional Airport, upgrading the I-16 and I-75 interchange, and building up Seventh Street to provide an alternative to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as a truck route through the city.

At a question-and-answer session after the House of Representatives finished floor business for the day, Macon’s lawmakers fielded a few questions about recent consolidation wrinkles in Payne City and the dispute over holding July nonpartisan local elections.

State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, defended his decision to put a roadblock in front of the bill that would dissolve Payne City into a consolidated Macon-Bibb County. The small city turned down consolidation by a vote of seven for and nine against in 2012.

“We still live in a democracy. Every vote counts,” he said. But Beverly also added that there could be some way of restructuring Payne that makes sense within Macon-Bibb.

The other representative of Payne City, state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said it was her understanding that due to finances, Payne City could not function. She promised that the delegation would do something both right and legal to resolve the Payne City question.

The Republicans and Democrats among Bibb’s team of representatives sniped at each other a little over the Republican bills that have put Macon-Bibb County’s local elections on a July 2013 nonpartisan ballot.

“I think it’s wrong to say ‘OK, we got you to vote for it, now we’re going to change to what we really want,’ ” Randall said.

Bibb County Republicans were able to make the change this year to the Democrat-signed charter written last year because the decennial shift in district boundaries has inserted balance-tipping Republican state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, into north Bibb County.

“I felt like we need to be consistent with what the rest of the state does,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, and a supporter of the shift. He pointed out that all Georgia’s other city councils and mayors are chosen in nonpartisan elections. He suggested the move would put the most “competent, the most efficient, the best” people in office.

The move needs federal approval, and a preliminary response from Washington is due by late April. African-American voter turnout is generally lower than white voter turnout in July ballots. That may turn out to be a red flag for the feds.

Bibb’s three senators missed the Macon Day lunch because their chamber was still in session.

The Macon guests spent the afternoon at economic development briefings at Georgia Power’s Georgia Resource Center in Midtown Atlanta. That was followed by the annual Taste of Macon dinner, catered by the likes of Nu Way, Natalia’s and other Macon restaurants.

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