Macon-Bibb consolidation, Savannah port hot topics for local legislators

Delegation looks to economic issues in upcoming session

jgaines@macon.comNovember 20, 2013 

Legislative_talk

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, right, addresses members of the the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce at the Douglass Theatre on Wednesday morning.

WOODY MARSHALL — woody@woodymarshall.com

All eight members of the Bibb County legislative delegation lined up Wednesday to talk about the upcoming General Assembly session, but Macon-Bibb County’s impending government consolidation was the subject most on their minds.

“I couldn’t be more excited about our community and the direction we’re heading,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, echoing comments of several other lawmakers at the event, organized by the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, chairwoman of the delegation, said the consolidation charter that legislators wrote and voters approved in 2012 -- to which the General Assembly has already made several changes -- is “just a beginning instrument” that will need “fine tuning” for years to come. The local delegation stands ready to make any further alterations that Macon-Bibb officials deem necessary, she said.

Randall said she doesn’t know what the short session, which convenes Jan. 13, will bring. But economic development, much of it tied to the expansion of Savannah port facilities, is sure to be a major theme, several legislators said. Macon’s location between the port and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a huge advantage for growth in the next few years, said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon.

“We are going to be that place where people come,” he said.

But it’s doubtful whether the state will have much money available to aid Middle Georgia’s development. A balanced budget is “job number one” for the General Assembly, said state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, but rising health care and education costs mean the state will start the annual budget process facing a need of about $700 million, he said.

Economic growth is returning to Georgia, but there are plenty of pressing needs, such as state workers who haven’t had raises in six or seven years, Staton said.

“We’re still facing economic challenges,” he said.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said recent fast growth is still playing catch-up in the wake of the nationwide recession, and that about $5 billion in previous education cuts need to be made up, while new challenges to rural growth are emerging with the shutdown of small-town hospitals.

Lucas jabbed at the Republican-run state government for refusing to accept $600 million in federal funding to expand Medicaid, in connection with the Affordable Care Act.

Staton agreed with the amount, but he said that wouldn’t free up money for other state uses.

“The money does come with handcuffs; it comes with a lot of strings attached,” he said. Staton said states are asking for more flexibility in funding health care, and said he expects the law to change.

Beverly said he, too, expects some changes, but he called the Affordable Care Act a “great start.” A big coming debate, he said, will probably be on busting up insurance companies’ monopoly on setting health care costs.

Chamber of Commerce members submitted several questions to the panel, and one on how to make up for the “lost opportunity” of the transportation special purpose local option sales tax drew a long silence. Voters defeated the 2012 T-SPLOST in nine of 12 regions statewide, including Middle Georgia.

Eventually state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, spoke up. The T-SPLOST’s failure in most of the state has caused “rethinking” of transportation funding sources in the General Assembly, he said, but he didn’t state any solid options.

“There’s been talk of trying to redevelop the concept of a regional T-SPLOST,” Epps said. But that would be up to Gov. Nathan Deal and the state transportation board, he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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