New report pushes for ways to boost military, protect bases

James Hall removes a panel from under the wing of an F-15 being repair at Robins Air Force Base.
James Hall removes a panel from under the wing of an F-15 being repair at Robins Air Force Base. WOODY MARSHALL

Georgia leaders should talk about enacting more military-friendly policies, according to a state House committee.

The state needs to consider ideas such as school choice for military families, service cancelable college loans, a state tax break for military retirement income, and investment in public works around bases, according to a draft of a report just approved by the state House Study Committee on Military Affairs.

Legislators formed the committee earlier this year to look at ways to strengthen and protect Georgia’s bases in case of a new round of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission process. A new BRAC hasn’t been announced, but many officials expect one in the coming years.

Warner Robins Republican state Rep. Heath Clark traveled to hearings at bases statewide as a part of the committee.

“There seem to be common issues at a lot of the bases,” he said.

The military wants a workforce better trained in math, science, engineering and technology. Bases are looking for ways to lower the cost of doing missions and to support war fighters and their families, he said.

Clark’s committee colleague, state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, said the report focuses on the big picture — legislators set aside their base affiliations. But he also said some recommendations, if implemented, might have more impact on the Robins Air Force Base area than others.

“Ensuring short- and long-term civilian workforce needs, collaboration among the defense communities, and economic development support at the state level” are among those that might mean the most to Robins, Blackmon said.

The report says a revitalized state Military Affairs Commission and the state’s Department of Economic Development should refresh studies on and plans for keeping bases open.

Next month, the leader of the state House said he will form a more permanent group to continue working on military policy.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, made the announcement at the University of North Georgia on Thursday, as the study group adopted its report.

“I feel it is imperative that we continue this conversation,” Ralston said in a written statement.

The House’s yet-unnamed working group will be able to hear testimony, its members will be able to file bills, and it could act as a sort of ambassador from the state of Georgia to bases and to Washington, D.C.

If BRAC comes calling, bases and their communities want to be seen as robust enough to take on new missions, not as candidates for closure.

And while those decisions are made in Washington, D.C., the state treasures its military bases. Bases employ thousands of people and bring money, people and tax revenue to communities such as Warner Robins. The study committee’s report, citing the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, says the economic impact of the military in Georgia was about $20 billion in 2015.

Georgia, like other states, does some things outside the fence to address possible BRAC concerns. The state has spent money to help local governments buy out landowners near Robins, for example, clearing an area the federal government considers a possible crash zone.

Politicians on both sides of the Capitol aisle in Atlanta have united behind some military family-friendly policies endorsed by the Department of Defense, such as making it easier for military spouses to quickly transfer professional licenses from another state.

The state also funded the Georgia Veterans Education Career Transition Resource Center in Warner Robins, which helps veterans and their families transition to civilian life. It helps them tap education benefits and helps veterans get school credit for military training.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee