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Hill optimistic about Georgia's future prospects

Lawmaker cites port deepening, growing economy as positives

Hill optimistic about Georgia's future prospects

Hill optimistic about Georgia's future prospects

State Sen. Jack Hill, left, takes que...

The Port of Savannah deepening is closer to becoming reality, and Georgia’s economy appears to be recovering at a noticeably faster clip than the nation’s overall.
Those are two of the reasons state Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, is optimistic about prospects for southeast Georgia, and the rest of the state, he told business, community and education leaders packed into R.J.’s Steakery for a community forum Saturday morning.
In response to a question, Hill said the proposed 2015 state budget includes $36 million for the last step before the harbor can be deepened, which will bring the state’s share of the cost to $260 million.
“I understand that federally, the pathway has been paved legally that ought to put those (federal) funds into the budget,” he said. “I’m not sure whether they’re in the present budget or not, but Congress can add them now under the authority they have passed without it becoming an earmark, which is something they don’t do anymore.
“Over the next six months, I think the state will begin work on that project,” he added.
Deepening the harbor will allow the Port of Savannah to accommodate the larger ships expected to pass through the Panama Canal once it is expanded, which is estimated to be complete within the next few years. Those bigger ships are expected to allow more goods to be shipped through Georgia into the rest of the country, which state and local officials believe will fuel economic growth in the region.
A challenge Georgia is facing, however, is that while revenue from state taxes and fees has finally recovered to prerecession levels, there are now 660,000 more people living in the state than in 2008, Hill said.
That means more people have more needs – more retirees from state government, more people of limited means who qualify for Medicaid (280,000 more for this program alone) and PeachCare health insurance, 250,000 more students to be educated. And those needs present costs that are growing rapidly – in some cases, faster than state revenues.
Today, 1.5 million Georgia residents are covered by Medicaid or PeachCare. Since 2008, the percentage of state funds spent on health care has risen from 12 percent to 15 percent this year.
But Hill also cited the unemployment rate, which is dropping. According to statistics released last week, state unemployment fell to 7.4 percent in December, down from 7.6 percent in November and 8.7 percent in December 2012. And metro Atlanta’s was even lower, at 6.8 percent in December, while the Coastal Region, which includes Bulloch, Bryan and Screven counties, dropped to 7.3 percent in December.
“There’s some good reasons our job growth hasn’t matched our people moving here,” Hill said. “I still believe people move here because they think there’s a good chance of getting a job. So for all the negativism we might hear, I still think other people believe this is a good place to come and find a job.”
Also, the recession took a toll on state reserve funds. Before the Great Recession, Georgia had $1.7 billion in reserve, or “rainy day,” funds. But in two two-year budget cycles, the state used nearly all of that, leaving Georgia with only enough money to operate the state government for two days in reserve. That has recovered, too, to about $700 million, but Hill said the state really should have about $2 billion in reserve for another eventuality such as economic hardship or a disaster.
But one advantage Georgia has over some other states is that the state has kept up with the requirements of funding its retirement plans for state employees.
“The states that have gotten in trouble with retirement plans are those states that did not make the required contributions,” Hill said. “They diverted those funds to other uses, or they gave benefits out to employees or unions or whatever that they really didn’t fund. We have avoided that in Georgia, and that’s a good thing.”

Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.

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