With federal politics in mind, state lawmakers are looking to make sure Georgia's military bases are ready to prove their worth in case of any visit from Base Realignment and Closure inspectors.
"We really are expecting a BRAC," said state Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, chair of the Georgia House Military Affairs Working Group and one of the legislature's top cheerleaders for Georgia military communities. He's looking for a BRAC as soon as 2019.
"The thing is, you can't wait until '19," he said. Georgia's bases need to be ready when 2019 comes, he said.
Belton and other lawmakers have spent the last couple of years moving both large and small bills meant to make sure Georgia is military-friendly. They want to make sure communities outside base fences have a deep well of civilian talent for hire; that bases have the roads and space they need; and that base communities and are the sorts of places members of the armed forces and their families want to live, work, educate their children — and maybe retire.
A few new bills are coming, said Belton, like proposals to expand a college loan forgiveness program for folks who join the National Guard and setting up a preference for disabled veterans who bid on state contracts.
Belton said Florida has pretty strong pro-military policies and he wants to at least match Florida's offerings.
Warner Robins Republican state Rep. Heath Clark said he's going to continue to push a bill that would exempt military pensions from state income tax. Veterans — including well-trained folks in their 40s looking for a second career — can often get a better income tax deal in neighboring states. Clark would like to see more such folks settling here.
"We're not seeing all the other benefits of those people living in our communities," he said. His House Bill 599 exempts all military pension pay from state income taxes.
That would probably cost the state nearly $100 million in annual income, according to the official nonpartisan cost estimate of an earlier version of the idea. But that's a very heavy lift, even though the state's annual budget is in the range of $25 billion.
Clark said he thinks House leadership might be willing to work on something more modest, say, a tiered exemption that doesn't apply to all veterans.
The idea has a yearslong history. But beside the cost, some worry that an exemption could trigger a lawsuit from other kinds of pensioners who may claim unfair tax treatment versus veterans.
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, probably hears more about the income tax exemption than legislators from the middle of the state. Fort Benning is convenient to Alabama, which doesn't collect income tax on military retirement pay.
"The chamber (of commerce of Columbus), the military brass, have all told us that if we can exempt the state income tax from military retirees in Georgia, it would be a significant move for the state of Georgia," Smyre said.
He said the cost is high, but that the issue will still be something he and others will continue talk about.
Yet skeptics point out the tax calculus makes it hard to compare Georgia to its neighbors. Florida and Tennessee don't tax income at all — but folks pay higher state sales taxes there and in the Carolinas. Alabama doesn't match Georgia's $65,000 income tax exemption for retirees aged 65 and older.
Over in the state Senate, Columbus Democrat Ed Harbison wants to create a new lottery game that would benefit programs of the state Department of Veterans Service.
"The idea would be to impact and benefit homeless veterans, women veterans," said Harbison, of his Senate Bill 144. "They are looking for relief, they're looking for healing, they're looking for someone to listen to their plight. I think in my place as a combat veteran, I know how it is."
And there's a hunt for funds to help military communities do what they think might impress any BRAC inspectors. That could include, for example, state funds to buy and knock down buildings that have encroached too close to bases.
Last year, lawmakers took the first step in a two-year process to set up a fund base communities could tap for matching funds for base-related public projects.
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, said he and others will be looking for an appropriation this year. "That would spur the process to be developed by the state Department of Economic Development and the Governor's Defense Initiative to approve those grants," he said.