ATLANTA – State lawmakers will head back to Atlanta next month to designate funds for the cost of cleaning up southwest Georgia communities in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
Gov. Nathan Deal called the special session Tuesday so money can be added to the current state budget to help pay for debris removal and other storm-related costs. It’s only the second special session that Deal has called in his eight-year term.
Lawmakers are expected to consider a funding package of about $100 million.
“We know that will certainly not begin to fix all the problems in this part of the state but at least it is the beginning of a beginning,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said in an interview Tuesday.
The special session will start Nov. 13, which is one week after the midterm elections. It’s expected to last at least four days. Thanksgiving is the following week. The regular legislative session starts in January.
“Georgia was severely impacted by Hurricane Michael and many communities across our state sustained heavy financial losses,” Deal said in a statement. “In response, I will ask the General Assembly to take immediate action and lead the way in spurring rapid economic recovery for southwest Georgia communities.”
Whatever the initial amount, it’s unlikely that this will be the end of the discussion. Rep. Jason Shaw, R-Lakeland, said he would not be surprised if state lawmakers are asked to add more funds to the budget when they return for the regular session next year.
“It’s still hard to put a number on it because there’s still work being done and so much work left to do,” Shaw said of the total cost. “Quite frankly, with a lot of these communities, it’s going to take years to rebuild.”
Deal will outline the limits of the session in the coming weeks, but lawmakers are expected to take up an unrelated proposal to suspend the state jet fuel tax – an issue that garnered controversy earlier this year after Delta Air Lines ended a discount for National Rifle Association members.
Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, told a group of lawmakers Tuesday the tax exemption will likely come up during the special session because state law dictates it.
Deal issued an executive order in July temporarily suspending the tax, which he’s authorized to do “until the meeting of the next General Assembly but no longer,” according to state code. That leaves it to lawmakers to decide whether to continue giving airlines the tax break.
The special session will bring little solace to farmers, who are looking to the feds for help. The total hit to the agricultural industry could run as high as $3 billion. Gary Kelley, inspector general with the state Department of Agriculture, called the damage “staggering.”
Kelley briefed the House Rural Development Council on the losses Tuesday: up to $600 million in losses to the cotton crop, $480 million in losses to vegetables and a $560 million hit to the pecan industry. The timber farmers are looking at as much as a $1 billion loss.
Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, is a vegetable farmer who lost much of his crop. He said the destruction to farmland will have a ripple effect in rural communities because of the businesses – such as hardware stores, fertilizer salesmen, tire dealers and others – who feed off farmers.
“These are the only businesses in rural Georgia,” Watson said. “If farmers don’t get paid, (the other businesses are) not going to get paid. And of course that’s sales tax revenue that the counties don’t get.
“I think it’s bigger than we all really imagine now, and we’re still just trying to get over the initial ‘Oh my gosh,’” Watson said. “It’s scary.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's newspapers and websites.