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Bulloch-area lawmakers discuss 2008 session

General Assembly begins Monday

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Posted: January 12, 2008 7:44 p.m.
Updated: January 28, 2008 5:00 a.m.

           With the Georgia General Assembly set to begin its 40-day session Monday, Bulloch County-area legislators offered their thoughts on the hot topics for 2008.

            All agreed water resources and property tax reform were top issues, while other important issues include the state’s transportation funding shortfall, solvency of rural medical facilities and possibly even changes to the voter registration process.

            The Herald spoke with State Sen. Jack Hill, from District 4, and State Representatives Jon Burns, House District 157, and Larry “Butch” Parrish, District 156. The three legislators represent all or part of Bulloch County as well as a number of other counties. Rep. Bob Lane could not be reached for comment.

Property taxes  

          Though taxes and water top the list, it is likely taxes will be first on the agenda. Legislators said they want to examine a comprehensive water study from the state water council before tackling the issue. Though agendas are not yet set in stone,  Hill sees the House gearing up to move quickly on a property tax relief plan.

            “It appears that [representatives] will work as fast as they can to try and pass something out of the House and get it to the Senate,” said Hill. “Of course, I don’t have a bill. That’s where we’re at a disadvantage at discussing something that’s pretty important.”

            Parrish agreed with Hill. He said another plan that’s being floated would give counties and school boards an opportunity to replace property taxes with a local sales tax.

            “Local taxing authorities would have the option of choosing one plan over another,” Parrish said. “At this point, there are a number of possibilities out there.”

            The original plan proposed by Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson was to eliminate all ad valorem taxes in the state, including residential property, commercial land and all vehicles. To replace the lost tax dollars, the state would not raise the sales tax rate, but would instead eliminate most sales tax exemptions, except for medical, child care and educational services.

            Burns said the plan he’s seen included a sales tax on groceries.

            “We have some folks who are not paying their fair share of taxes, for whatever reason," Burns said. "They may not be here as legal resident, and this would be one means for them to pay into our system. One proposal has an income tax rebate for groceries for those at a certain poverty or income level. It would only be available for those who filed income taxes.”

            Ultimately, whatever plan the House decides to put on the ballot for the citizens of Georgia, local control of the ability to tax is one all the legislators said their constituents were concerned about.         

            “Local control is certainly on of the large issues that will be a major sticking point as far as statewide legislation to bring about property tax relief,” said Burns. “I’ve asked all my local officials to stay engaged to make sure their concerns are addressed as we look at tax reform.”

 

Water resources

            Another issue on the table is water resources, due to the problems in North Georgia. Though there has been a historic drought in that area, counties in Southern Georgia have been largely unaffected. As a result, there is a great concern among the local citizens that the Atlanta metro area will create a plan that might include inter-basin transfers – meaning that water could be pumped from East or South Georgia up to Atlanta.

            A press release from Parrish summed it up.

            “Water is already a very contentious issue between Georgia and our neighboring states of Alabama and Florida, and when the debate reaches the legislature, it is certain to pit various geographic areas of the state against one another,” said Parrish.

            Burns said South Georgians have a responsibility to protect water resources and use it wisely.

            “I will certainly do anything I can to prevent Atlanta and North Georgia from using up our water resources, especially in the Savannah River and Ogeechee River basin,” said Burns.

            He added that building reservoirs and continuing conservation programs would help solve some problems, but Atlanta needs to look at their growth and see how much their ecosystem can actually sustain.

            According to Hill, the water council, chaired by the head of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Carol Couch, released its plan late last week, The study includes a water bill to be put before the legislature.

            “We’ve got so many days to consider their bill,” said Hill. “If we don’t past that bill, we have so many days to pass another one or the original goes into effect just like they presented it. It’s basically a fail-safe process.”

 

Transportation

            Georgia is facing a $20 billion funding shortfall for transportation projects that have already been approved for the next six years, according to Parrish. Burns said projects are simply taking too long to complete, which increases the costs of the projects.

            “We need government to be able to respond more like the private side and cut through the red tape and bureaucracy to get projects finished,” said Burns. “I’ve seen Statesboro and Bulloch County be very innovative – that’s how you get things done, by working together.”

 

Health care

            In the area of health care, Hill would like to see a way for the state to fund an additional trauma center in South Georgia, while Burns would like to ensure that rural hospitals are able to continue to provide quality care for their residents.

 

Voter registration

            One other item on the legislator’s radar can be attributed to a recent controversy Statesboro.

            When the Statesboro Citizens for Good Government challenged the validity of 909 student registrations, it was made clear that while voter registration rules clearly outline various qualifications to determine residency, county registrars have no tools available to make a determination of residency.

            “We’re looking at the election laws a little bit,” Hill said. “Ultimately, the Secretary of State’s office is responsible for refining the laws. But I sort of lean toward using your driver’s license, because if you move and your primary residence changes, you’re supposed to change you driver’s license. It seems to me that ought to be the first test. If you got your license then your intent was to become a citizen there. It’s certainly a good place to start.”

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