Legislators

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, speaks at the "eggs and issues" event of the chamber. Other state legislators are, from left, Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Madison County, and John Wilkinson, R-Stephens County.

The budget may be one contentious issue in the General Assembly this year, state legislators agreed Wednesday, Jan. 8, at the annual “eggs and issues” event of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce.

The legislators were cautious about predictions before the chamber audience. Legislators Sens. John Wilkinson, 50th District, and Frank Ginn, 47th District, and Reps. Tommy Benton, 31st District, and Houston Gaines, 117th District, appeared at the event. All are Republicans.

Gaines pointed out that only about 20 percent of the budget is under the edict from Gov. Brian Kemp to cut up to 4 percent of the current budget and 6 percent from the fiscal year 2021 budget.

He explained that much of the budget – public education and transportation, among others – are off limits to the cuts.

“A lot of those agencies (that are facing cuts) still haven’t recovered from where they were in 2008 (when the legislature dealt with the recession),” he said.

Wilkinson said Kemp proposed a $3,000 raise for public teachers in the current budget – and started with a $5,000 increase.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to recommend cutting teacher salaries,” he said.

Wilkinson said the legislature will look for ways to be more “efficient” in delivering services. He said technological advances may be the key to that.

Benton and Ginn said local economies are going well. Benton said the difference can be seen in morning traffic to Atlanta – “people have jobs,” he said.

Ginn remembered the unemployment rate when he was elected in 2010. Now it is less than 3 percent in Jackson County, he said. He said he had been told that a rate that low means people are “just switching jobs,” not looking for work.

Benton said the cut in the state income tax from 6 to 5.75 percent, passed by the legislature, reduced state money by about $300 million. He said the change in how people pay taxes on vehicles cut the state money another $150- to $200-million.

Benton also said he expects the question of legal gambling to be an issue. It could pass the General Assembly for a constitution amendment referendum, he said.

Only Wilkinson responded to a question about “local control.” He introduced a bill last session that opponents characterized as destroying local control.

He said the legislation was “misunderstood.” The bill would limit the regulation local government bodies could impose on houses.

Wilkinson said the bill does not preclude a local body from adopting standards under the International Building Code or a local Homeowners Association. He said a city cannot impose “more regulations on top of that.”

He said some areas were adopting planning regulations that added to the cost of a house.

“There are places in the world where the government can tell you” what materials may be used for construction.

Saying the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives has a new chairman because of the death of the former chairman, Benton said Monday the new chairman is from Columbus which has strict rules about development. He implied the new chairman would not let the bill out of the committee.

“I have nine municipalities in my district,” Benton said, all of which opposed Wilkinson’s bill.

Questions about broadband access in rural areas and health care waivers for the state also were briefly discussed.

About broadband, Ginn said one question is should the government offer that service. He said the legislature passed a bill that allows EMCs to be in the broadband business. He said that provides opportunity but limits it to the private sector. Benton said internet service is not reliable in the metro Atlanta area either.

Houston said the governor has asked for two waivers in health care for the Medicaid program. He said the goal is to lower costs for patients near the poverty line.

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