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Lawmakers review session's highlights, struggles
bob and bill
State Rep. Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon), right, talks with Bob Rogers, pastor of First Baptist Church of Rincon, after the Effingham Chambers Eggs and Issues review breakfast at the Effingham College and Career Academy. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

The state’s economic news has been good of late, but state Sen. Jack Hill still is striking a cautious tone.

Hill (R-Reidsville), the longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, pointed out at the Effingham Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues legislative review that state revenues have picked up — but sales tax receipts remain tepid.

"Generally, the state is doing better," he said. "Gradually, our economy is recovering. I think we’re further down the road to recovery than we were before."

Corporate income taxes were up by more than $50 million, and Hill said that’s a good sign for the state’s economy.

"For our state to progress, businesses have to make money," he said.

But sales taxes have lagged behind, having grown less than 1 percent, Hill said. That also means that putting more of the state’s revenue burden on sales taxes may not be so prudent.

"Our sales taxes continue to be problematic," he said. "As presently drafted, our sales tax does not really reflect our economy. It would be a mistake, I think, to rely on sales tax alone to take the place of income tax and property tax. When times were good, our sales tax revenues weren’t growing the way the economy was growing."

Hill also warned that the state’s burgeoning revenues could be the result of a one-time influx of money.

Hill and state Reps. Jon Burns and Bill Hitchens told Chamber members there were good pieces of legislation passed in the most recent session, and the state has affirmed its support for deepening the Savannah harbor. The deepening will allow the port to accommodate larger ships that will begin to pass through the Panama Canal.

"It’s a project we hope the federal government can get its act together on and we can move forward," Burns said. "We are doing our part. It is getting attention from the state."

The project has an estimated price tag of more than $650 million, and the state has dedicated $231 million to it. The state budget includes $50 million in bonds for the harbor deepening.

"We’re ready to spend our own money," Hill said. "We need to know the feds are going to back up their end."

Hill also said Georgia Southern University’s awarding of its first doctorate in logistics is a boost — in order to teach logistics, which ties in with the growth of the port, doctorates in that field are handy.

"To have Georgia Southern knee-deep in logistics, I think, is really important," Hill added.

Burns pointed out that the General Assembly revamped the HOPE Grant qualifications. HOPE Grants are used by students attending technical schools. HB 372, which goes into effect July 1, lowers the grade-point average requirement from 3.0 to 2.0.

"We reduced that to help all students and especially our non-traditional students," Burns said. "In these recessionary times, people need to continue their education and refine their skill sets."

Hitchens discussed the battle over money for Armstrong Atlantic State University’s center in Liberty County. AASU announced earlier this month it will build an expanded Armstrong-Liberty Center in downtown Hinesville, not far from the Fort Stewart main gate. It is anticipated that most of its students will be either military or military dependents from the massive base.

The new Armstrong Center will receive $6 million in infrastructure and land from Hinesville and another $4.7 million in state funding. Though it’s not in his district, Hitchens was whole-heartedly in support of the project.

The money wasn’t in the governor’s original budget submittal but was added by lawmakers.

"Somebody made a speech, and somebody got rankled, and it got taken out," Hitchens said. "We got it put back in. I know everybody at Armstrong is really thrilled, and it’s the right thing to do for people who stood up and had the courage to defend our country."

Learning curve

After years of leading the state’s public safety and homeland security, Hitchens was familiar with the ways of the Capitol. Still, his first year as a legislator was educational.

"I learned a lot. I’m just not sure what it was," he joked. "I thought I had a great understanding of how things worked. One of the difficulties was the technical aspects of how things worked, how you get (bills) introduced, how you do the paperwork."

Hitchens was one of 43 freshmen in the General Assembly, but even with all his contacts and the support of veterans Burns and Hill, he learned freshmen are better seen than heard. Nevertheless, he scored a major coup for a first-year lawmaker.

"One of the things they said from the get-go was ‘don’t put down Appropriations, because freshmen don’t get on Appropriations,’" he said of the committee assignment requests.

Hitchens was the only freshman lawmaker to be put on the House Appropriations Committee, getting a seat on the Public Safety subcommittee. The former Marine and Coast Guard veteran is also on the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, and he is on the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, a body he once testified before as the state’s director of Homeland Security.

"I was one of the first freshmen to get a bill passed," he said. "I feel like, for my first year, I did fairly well, and I tried to concentrate on things I knew a lot about."

Said Burns: "Bill Hitchens hit the ground running."

The road to getting road projects done

Burns, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said the expansion of the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway is moving forward and could help alleviate Effingham traffic problems for the commuters headed out of the county each day. The Effingham Transportation Advisory Board also is a big plus for the county in giving it one voice for road projects, and having Ann Purcell on the state transportation board is another boon.

He also said the design-build method for road projects may not be the lowest bottom line but it could result in a better product for the state.

"You’ll get something that will last, and it gives the Department of Transportation tools for the most bang for the buck," he said.

The state has to figure out a way to fund road work after the transportation special purpose local option sales tax was defeated in most regions, Hitchens said.

"There have to be new perspectives," he said. "The money is short, and the problems are huge. The one thing we’ve got going for us is the ports."

Burns added that HB 164, signed into law last month, will help the local economy. The act exempts sales taxes on certain airplane parts, and he acknowledged that will allow Gulfstream to be able to maintain and repair the planes it sells at its Georgia facilities.

"It allows them to stay here and be that quality employer that brings jobs here," Burns said. "We need them to continue to land in Savannah and have that work done here."