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Issues aplenty for lawmakers
lamar and jack 1
Effingham County Board of Education Chairman Lamar Allen, left, talks with state Sen. Jack Hill following Thursdays Eggs and Issues breakfast, sponsored by the Effingham Chamber of Commerce. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Effingham County stands to gain from the Transportation Investment Act, if the regional one-cent sales tax is passed, state lawmakers said Thursday morning.

Sen. Jack Hill and Reps. Jon Burns and Ann Purcell addressed the Effingham Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast, held at the First Baptist Church of Rincon’s Memorial Chapel. The trio delved into a number of topics, including redistricting, education funding, economic development and tax reform.

All three urged citizens to find out what the upcoming T-SPLOST vote, set for the general primary in July 2012, entails and what it means for the area.

“We are a bedroom community — there’s no doubt about that,” said Purcell. “But the avenue of success for the future is what we’re looking at.”

All four phases of the Effingham Parkway/Georgia Portway are on the list to go before voters next summer. Also on the list is the reconstruction of the I-16/Old River Road overpass.

There are other projects on the list that may impact Effingham residents, Burns said, such as the plans for the I-95/Highway 21 interchange.

“I believe Effingham County fares well with the projects that were chosen,” he said. “I think it can be a good thing. It’s also a good time to do road construction projects.”

Should voters in the 10-county region approve the T-SPLOST, all of the revenue raised will be directed toward projects submitted to and approved by the regional roundtable. In addition, 25 percent of the money raised by the sales tax will go back to the counties in the region for local needs.

“Any funds collected in this district remains in this district,” Purcell said. “It remains here.”

The 25 percent to local governments will be divided up based closely on the formula used to determine local assistance road program funding. That is based on center line miles of roads, including dirt roads, Burns said.

“Effingham County will receive more money than it pays in,” he said. “That will make it even more attractive.”

Purcell also pointed to the 112-mile stretch of I-95 as a potential boon for the T-SPLOST. Many of the millions of drivers on I-95 are not from Georgia but stop at exits and spend money, and with it, sales taxes.

“Our district has I-95 — how frequently is it traveled by tourists who don’t live in this area?” she said.

The 25 percent will be discretionary, meaning local governments can use it on a variety of transportation needs, and the state will lower its requirement for local matches to state transportation funding.

“If we don’t pass it, our state match goes up. That’s not a good thing,” Burns said. “That will make it much more difficult.”

If a region does not approve the T-SPLOST, it can’t come back before the voters for two more years.

Though 98 percent of the state lives within 20 miles of a four-lane road or an interstate highway, the state is spends less per capita on transportation than any state except Tennessee, according to the state Department of Transportation.

According to state estimates, the one-cent sales tax, across 10 counties of the Coastal Regional Commission, would bring in $1.608 billion over 10 years. It is the second-highest projection of any of the 12 regions, behind only that of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s.

As important as the T-SPLOST vote is to local projects, lawmakers said, it might be even more important to Atlanta.

“It is crucial that it passes in Atlanta,” Hill said. “If it doesn’t pass in Atlanta, they will be back in the Legislature to try to find some other method of funding the transportation needs they’ve got, and they are substantial. If it doesn’t pass down here, then we only hurt ourselves.”

In the post-Census reapportionment, north Georgia is gaining a state Senate seat and a handful of seats in the House of Representatives. That means a loss of votes from the southern half in the state under the Gold Dome and an even greater advantage for issues that cross party lines, such as transportation funding.

“When the metro Atlanta legislators get together, they can run right over us and outvote us,” Hill said. “They can impose something statewide pretty easily and we might not have a whole lot to say about it.”

Tax reform, which was discussed in the last session, will come back before lawmakers when they re-convene beginning Jan. 9. The problem, Burns and Purcell said, was that two different groups had two different sets of numbers to work with in attempting to formulate new tax structures.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t have good, sound information,” Burns said.

Burns and Hill also said there may be a push to explore sales taxes for Internet-based commerce.

Hill, Burns and Purcell also said the state will continue to support the Savannah Harbor deepening project. The Georgia Ports Authority and the state are pushing deepening the harbor from 42 feet to as much as 48 feet.

“There is a commitment in the General Assembly and in the governor’s office that no matter what happens the state of Georgia will do its part,” Burns said.