Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

April 14, 2013

Area lawmakers discuss recent session

VALDOSTA — Even though Rep. Dexter Sharper was the “freshman” representative this legislative session, he said he learned a lot quickly and feels he has already made a positive difference with several programs in the works. On the opposite side of the spectrum, this was Sen. Tim Golden’s 23rd session in the legislature, and for him, it’s more enjoyable and relaxing after all of these years.

This week, members of the local legislative delegation sat down with The Times to discuss the recent session and legislation, from local budget appropriations and education to the MOST referendum.

Sharper and Golden were joined by Reps. Amy Carter and Jason Shaw. Rep. Ellis Black had meetings in Atlanta and was unable to attend.

Sharper said the others looked out for him and he was excited to be able to get the committee assignments he wanted, including juvenile justice and health and human services.

“I’ve been in health care for over 20 years, and I’m proud to bring that experience to the table,” he said.

Sharper is working with the Georgia Department of Labor on a program with the prison system to mentor inmates who are within six months of their release date.

For Golden, the seasoned veteran of the delegation, this was a rewarding session as he chaired the insurance and labor committee and appropriations. He and Shaw had the House and Senate side covered with the insurance committee, while he and Carter were able to do the same with appropriations.

“It is unusual to have members from the same delegation on both sides, especially on appropriations, but it worked in our favor,” Golden said, as Shaw jokingly referred to it as a “Valdosta sandwich.”

Among their successes this session were obtaining funding for the Wiregrass Douglas campus, $13 million; $2.5 million for the renovation of Martin Hall at Valdosta State University, along with $3.8 million for equipment for VSU’s new Health Sciences Center.

“We were also able to secure funds for ABAC, UGA’s Tifton campus and Bainbridge,” said Carter, who is the secretary on the higher education committee. This was also her first year to chair a committee, governmental affairs, and she sat on all seven subcommittees of appropriations as the secretary as well.

With a full plate, Carter was very busy this session, but said what they were all able to accomplish as a team was rewarding. Additional money was appropriated this session for Pre-K and K-12 programs and changes to the HOPE fund will allow more students the opportunity to receive an education.

Golden was in the House in the 1990s when HOPE first passed, and he said although the program looked like it was going to be out of money at one point, the legislature was able to shore it up to ensure its future, at least for now.

“At one point, the only money HOPE had left was what was coming in, but we succeeded in improving their reserves,” said Carter.

This year, by dropping the GPA requirement from 3.0 to 2.0 for technical college students, the $8 million to 9 million that the changes will cost the state will be “more than made up for by keeping more students in school,” she said.

Sharper said the state currently has 5,000 openings for over-the-road truck drivers, and “Wiregrass has an excellent program.”

The governor is working to direct more money into the truck driving, Pre-K, and nursing programs at the technical colleges, said Carter.

For Shaw, this session was about helping rural Georgia. As a member of the joint legislative rural caucus, the second largest committee, he was able to help the Georgia Grown initiative pass.

“There will be a Georgia Grown highway, on 37 and 76, to encourage agri-tourism in the state. This will help several wineries, farms, and others to bring attention to our locally grown products,” he said.

In his second term, Shaw said this session was a little easier than in his first term as “it’s hard to carry a bill by yourself. It’s better to ride someone else’s.”

He said he also learned that sponsoring two or three good bills was far better than trying to sponsor too many. “I’ve learned a lot.”

Shaw was able to assist Valdosta area hunters who sponsor a disabled turkey hunt each year to allow a special two-day turkey season for them.

As vice chairman of the House insurance committee, he worked with Golden in the Senate on several issues. Shaw said he worked hard to help rural hospitals and although several very emotional issues came before the committees, he said the state can’t keep mandating health benefits.

Shaw and Golden discussed the importance of Gov. Nathan Deal’s newly formed committee on mandated health benefits, which includes Myron Faircloth and Steve Wilson from Valdosta. Golden also sits on the committee, and said they are examining the numerous mandates already in place to bring some common sense into the mix.

“So much of the private sector is exempt from these mandates as they are self-funded, so all of these mandates fall on small businesses, and it’s not fair. This is an issue that’s past due on review, and something we’ve needed to look at for a long time. There are new therapies that are better than the ones currently mandated, plus the financial impact on our small business folks is too heavy,” Golden said.

The entire delegation was very pleased with the small but steady growth during the last 18 months as state revenues improve, but are still far down from 2007 levels.

“In 2007, Georgia had $1.6 billion in rainy day funds and it was down to $150 million two years ago. This year, we restored it to $378 million, which really helps our state’s bond rating and keeps us financially solid,” said Golden.

Georgia is currently one of only four states with a Triple A bond rating.

While state employees may all deserve raises, Carter said when you consider that for every 1 percent of a raise, it costs the state $124 million, a 3 percent raise would effectively wipe out the state’s entire reserve fund.

Regarding MOST, or a Municipal Option Sales Tax, Carter said the city asked them to add it this session, but that it was withdrawn after both the city and county were able to come to the table and agree on splitting SPLOST proceeds.

Carter said this was solely a local issue and no other cities would have benefited from the legislation as it was “so tightly written it only applied to Valdosta.”

When asked if the delegation would bring it back up in the 2014 session, or if they thought any other cities would attempt to pass a MOST, the consensus was no on both counts.

Gov. Deal has signed only a handful of bills so far, with the rest awaiting his signature. The delegation all agreed that working with him has been very rewarding, along with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, as they are detail oriented and pay attention to what is going on.

“I guarantee you the governor will read every single one of those bills thoroughly before he signs them,” said Carter.

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