Expected state budget cuts, medical marijuana and the Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) plant, were on the minds of legislators and audience members at the Madison County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues legislative breakfast this week at the Ila Restaurant.
House Representative Tom McCall, who is retiring at the end of the year and State Senator Frank Ginn made remarks on the upcoming legislative session and Ginn took some questions from the audience afterwards. McCall had a prior engagement in Elberton and had to leave early.
Rep. Alan Powell, who also regularly appears at Eggs and Issues, had committee meetings in Atlanta and could not attend.
Representative Tom McCall
Rep. McCall thanked Chamber members and others for allowing him to work with them and for being his friend over the past 25-plus years that he has been serving the constituents from the 33rd District, which includes Madison County. McCall will complete his 26th year on Dec. 31.
“One of the hardest things we have to deal with this year is that the governor has called for across the board cuts in the budget,” McCall said. “When you look at across the board budget cuts instead of looking at what’s working and what’s not, that’s a different thing.”
McCall said he didn’t mean to criticize the governor but would prefer to look at what is actually working and what is not.
He said he hoped to see more progress on medical marijuana this year as well. McCall reminded the audience that he had a son who passed away in 2000 and that if he knew that cannabis or CBD oil would have helped him, he would have been “growing it in the backyard.”
“I don’t know why we would be backing up on something that helps kids, that helps anybody,” he said.
Finally, McCall said that 99 percent of the calls he is getting right now from Madison County concern the GRP plant in Colbert.
And most of those calls are not from those wanting to see the plant shut down, rather they are from folks worried about the crossties being burned there, he told the audience.
McCall said he did know that crossties should make up no more than 20 percent of the material burned at the plant for fuel.
“The EPD (Environmental Protection Division) is on top of it,” McCall said, adding that he had spoken with officials there the previous day to make sure he was up to speed on everything.
“They (GRP) can’t burn crossties at start up or shut down because the temperature is not hot enough,” McCall said.
“And they have a water discharge problem that they have to fix as well.”
He said that GRP is a “top priority” for the EPD and that they have taken enforcement action and will continue to take enforcement action until everything is fixed.
“I think it will be beneficial for the county when the issues get fixed and it is up and running,” McCall added. “And I hope there can be a resolution with the people that live around it. I don’t want people to think that there is nothing being done about it – there is.”
He ended by saying his office — number 228 — is “y’all’s office for the rest of this year, anyway.”
McCall plans to run for Georgia Farm Bureau President this year.
Senator Frank Ginn
Senator Frank Ginn, who is beginning his 10th year as state senator and also currently serves as the executive director of the county’s industrial authority, spoke next.
He said it was a sad day for him to know that McCall will be leaving at the end of the year.
“That’s 26 years of experience we’re losing in the Georgia House,” he said, adding that tenure and experience means something and that one lawmaker can’t get anything done by themselves.
“Everything we do is done by majority,” he said. “You have to have friends, you have to have connections to get something done.”
Ginn brought up GRP at the end of his talk and said he has spoken with Dr. Rodney Webber, a PhD professor at Georgia Tech and an expert on the operation of burning crossties as a fuel source. He said Webber advised him that the plant should not be allowed to use the crossties at start up and shut down of its furnace, since the temperature is not high enough to obliterate the toxins in the ties.
He said the Colbert plant has some sound suppression equipment coming and that it should be installed this month, which he hopes will help with the noise issues encountered by neighboring property owners. He said he was at GRP last week during the rain and that wet fuel has an impact on their operation as well.
Conolus Scott asked Ginn during a question-and-answer session about whether he had discussed the plant ceasing to burn crossties all together and if so, were they open to that.
Ginn said he had discussed this with officials at the plant and that they told him they could operate without using them, if it came to that, but that it is a financial decision for them.
He said it was hard, particularly at this time of year to get virgin wood sources to burn so they turn to alternate sources for wood chips instead of paying premium prices for wood.
Ginn added that he was glad that the EPD came in and had prohibited the plant from using the crossties at start up and at shut down. He said Dr. Webber had assured him that at 1,400 degrees (full furnace operation) the crossties “were no issue at all.”
Another person in the audience asked about who to turn to for complaints or to get more information about the plant. Ginn told him that Veolia, a worldwide company that manages everything from power plants to water treatment facilities, had been contracted to manage the plant. He said the contact person for Veolia is David Groves and offered to provide his contact information to whomever needed it. He said Groves has been very responsive and helpful in answering questions, giving tours and on other questions about the plant here in the county and the one in Franklin County.
Ginn also spoke at length about the Seagraves Lake Dam issue and the public hearing scheduled for later that day. He said the dam was considered a Category 1 dam or a “high risk dam,” meaning that a breech could cause loss of life. He said he hoped to introduce legislation this year to treat hazardous property below dams like hurricane zones and put in some requirements for upgrades to housing and structures that people have to comply with if they choose to live in such an area.
Ginn also touched on topics such as healthcare and prescription drug costs and the so called “voucher bill” for public schools.
Superintendent Michael Williams asked if this issue, in which public funds are used to educate children who are moved to private schools, was likely to come back up in this legislative session.
Ginn said he didn’t think that would be coming up this year, but was likely to come around again. He said the Lt. Governor was trying to provide some alternatives for children where public school was not always the best place for them. He said the issue had been narrowed to special needs children with very limited issues to allow them to be able to go to a specialized school and take that state funding with them.
He said it costs approximately $8,000 per child per year to educate a child in the public school system and that in most counties in Georgia the voucher system might actually work out well, since it would be removing a higher cost student from the system and putting them into a private school and he thinks that would be the case in the counties he serves, but that in some counties, particularly those in school districts in south Georgia it could be really devastating.
Hull council member Veronica Davenport asked Ginn about possible cuts to social services, like foster care and the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS).
Ginn said he didn’t have an answer for her as they don’t know where the cuts will be until the legislative session is underway.
Attorney Victor Johnson asked if he had an opinion on decriminalizing marijuana. Ginn answered that he was in favor of decriminalizing it for medical use. He added that former Gov. Deal had expressed remorse about not working harder on the medical marijuana issue while he was in office.
And finally, like McCall, he said the biggest thing lawmakers will be dealing with this session is the budget.
“We’ve done a good job of cutting your taxes,” he said, but added that working on things like that can also lead to not having enough money to fund the budget.
He promised to be accessible and urged those with questions to give him a call.
“You’ll get an answer or a call back,” Ginn said.
Chamber board president Jill Fortson told the audience that the annual Chamber of Commerce meeting will be held Feb. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the culinary arts center at the high school.