Georgia's top legislative leaders telegraphed what they intend to do in this year's legislative session at a key business meeting on Wednesday morning. The message: The Legislature needs to do a few things to keep Georgia growing.
Outgoing term-limited Republican Gov. Nathan Deal started his speech at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce Eggs and Issues breakfast with a list of ways in which Georgia is better off than when he took office in 2011, as the country was pulling out of recession. For example, the unemployment rate is lower and the state's rainy day fund is built back up, he said, in front of a few thousand people gathered for the speeches and Chick-fil-A breakfast with trimmings.
Deal said he will propose an additional $35 million in state spending to deepen the harbor in Savannah, so bigger ships can call on the port. He said the state has already paid some $266 million toward the work and that it's been slowed too long due to ongoing delays in federal funding. The total work will cost something near a billion dollars, according to 2017 estimates.
Deal said he'll also ask lawmakers to approve some $25 million to improve several mostly rural airports, including the one in Macon County, as part of his upcoming proposal for spending for the year that begins in July. The upgrades will include lengthening runways to accommodate corporate aircraft.
"If we really want to improve the economic future of rural Georgia, I believe this is one of the best ways possible to do that, because it will allow business leaders to come to these smaller, rural communities and see what that they have to offer," Deal said. "Companies often evaluate a community's local aviation capabilities when they are considering new locations and expansions."
He also called for the creation of a business court to hear and resolve complex commercial cases from throughout the state.
But one thing Deal doesn't advise the Legislature to do right now is pass any bill to try and woo Amazon to build its second headquarters in Georgia. He said if Georgia makes Amazon's shortlist, he'll call lawmakers back to work on any bill that might help attract the company.
Next, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is one of several Republicans running to succeed Deal, led his speech with a call for yet more education choices that are aligned with what business needs.
"Ultimately education drives our economy," said Cagle.
The state already does things like assist high school students to industry apprenticeships. And Georgia technical schools offer dual enrollment to high school students, as well as industry certifications that help graduates move directly into jobs.
Cagle said the state must partner with business to offer more such apprenticeships and pathways to work.
"Unless we create a value proposition for every student, we will fall short," he said.
House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said the Legislature will work on transit and rural economic development legislation this year. Last year, he appointed special commissions to study both topics, to see if the state could spur economic development through new policies in either area.
He said he thinks it's time to make a "serious and sensible" state investment in transit. Though there are public transportation agencies statewide that could see a piece of any state money that's spent, legislation there may be of most interest in metro Atlanta, where MARTA is only the largest among several public transportation agencies.
But transit will help Georgia compete with other states and the return on state investment in it could improve quality of life all over the state, Ralston said.
As for rural Georgia, Ralston has already spoken highly of at least one commission recommendation: to work on policies to get fast internet rolled out where now it's slow or nonexistent. He's said he thinks broadband is at the heart of what will bring revitalization and jobs to rural Georgia.
But Ralston also said conversations about rural Georgia and transit are multiyear efforts that will continue after this session.
The session will run for 40 nonconsecutive days that have yet to be fully scheduled.