SPRINGFIELD — State Sen. Jack Hill offered a helping of unsettling news during the Legislative Eggs & Issues Breakfast at The Local on Laurel on Dec. 11.
“The State of Georgia right now is kind of a mixed bag right now,” he said. “As I listen to the economic factors that are going on here in Effingham County and I look around the state regarding unemployment and job creation, all these things are very positive in the state. Yet our state revenues are lagging behind and not catching up to the prosperity.
“It’s a little bit of a quandary because, as we stand here after five months of the fiscal year, we are actually under budget. We are actually almost $350 million under the budget for the fiscal year we are in right now.”
Hill said a late surge in tax collections allowed the budget to balance by the end of the previous fiscal year.
“There is something going on in the economy that we just haven’t picked up on yet,” Hill said. “I can’t tell that it is true but something is wrong with our revenues. We did cut the income tax — that’s our main source of revenue — but it doesn’t explain why sales taxes are growing only about two percent a year and it doesn’t explain why fuel tax revenue is negative for the first five months.
“I don’t know if these things are canaries in a coal mine or if they are just symptoms of a volatile economy. It is a concern to try to see if we are going to beat the budget for this year as well.”
Hill made a joke about declining tax revenue.
“I guess the thing that was most sobering of all — and no pun intended — is that alcoholic beverage sales were down five percent,” he said.
The lagging revenue streams are a concern because the General Assembly wants to lower the state income tax rate further.
Hill did furnish some good news, including a lowering of the unemployment rate and individual earnings increase.
In addition, Hill and Reps. Jon Burns and Bill Hitchens worked together to get $5.65 million in state funding for the construction of a transportation and conference at Savannah Tech’s Effingham Campus.
“That was strictly a legislative initiative,” Hill said. “It couldn’t happen without the strong support of your legislators and I want to publicly thank them for getting that done.”
Burns, the House majority leader, expects the 2020 legislative session to be “rambunctious.”
“Uncontrollable exuberance. Boisterous. Yeah, I think all those fit during an election year,” he said.
Burns said passing a balanced budget is always the legislature’s top responsibility.
“We are focusing on positive solutions that will result in economic development, better infrastructure, access to affordable health care,” Burns said.
Gaming and sports betting, and maternal mortality will receive a great deal of attention on the next session, Burns predicted.
“It is important to note that Georgia already operates on a lean, fiscally responsible budget with less than 17 percent of our budget being discretionary spending. The rest of it is earmarks,” Burns said.
Burns touted the Rural Jobs Act.
“We allocated funding for the HOPE Career Grants, which we all know are crucially important to rural workforce development here in Georgia,” he said. “We also have developed the Georgia Rural Innovation Center at the Mercer School of Medicine. That’s crucial to bringing infrastructure as physicians and health care professionals right here in our state. We have several members of this community in medical school as a result of working with Mercer and we look forward to working with those young men and women to give back to communities in which they live.”
Before surrendering the floor to Hitchens, Burns returned to the subjects of casino gaming, horse racing and sports betting.
“All of those must be thoroughly examined to determine if they are the right fit for Georgia,” Burns said.
Burns asked the audience members to share their opinions on the matter with him.
Hitchens said he wished he had more time to talk about important issues but he limited his remarks to a few. Military matters are always at the forefront of his thoughts.
“The military does a lot of positive things for young men who maybe didn’t the background or have the understanding of what life is all about,” he said.
Hitchens said only one percent of Americans opt for the military.
“In Vietnam, it was seven percent and during World War II it was 15 percent,” he said. “I say that say that I encourage young men who maybe aren’t going to be doctors or lawyers or accountants — that’s a positive way to go with their life.”
Hitchens also broached the topic of guns. He said citizens are routinely ordered to leave the Capitol because of their aggressive tactics in support of gun control.
“The real problem is that the only people who pay attention to gun laws are law-abiding citizens,” Hitchens said.
Lastly, Hitchens said he is support Gracie’s Law. The bill is named in honor of a girl with Down Syndrome was denied insurance coverage for an organ transplant.
“I just think it’s wrong that people who have a physical or mental disability aren’t eligible to have their lives saved and have the insurance company to pay for it.”
The event featured several other speakers, including Guyton Mayor Jeff Lariscy, Springfield City Manager Matt Morris, Springfield Community Development Director Erin Phillips, Rincon City Planner LaMeisha Hunter Kelly, County Administrator Tim Callanan, Effingham County Superintendent Dr. Randy Shearouse, Effingham Health System’s Al Allred, and Effingham County Industrial Development Authority CEO Brandt Herndon.
Morris offered an update on the status of the abandoned Walt’s building, which left downtown Springfield with a glaring retail vacancy. A master tenant has been found for it, he said.
“That master tenant has a plan to put in three retail spaces,” Morris said. “He’s going to invest north of half a million dollars into the building. We are very excited about that taking place.”
Phillips touted a recent achievement. A 200-acre section of Downtown Springfield has been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Thanks to this designation, property owners in the district will be able to receive tax credits if they renovate their buildings. It will also strengthen Springfield leaders’ ability to control additions to the district.
Lastly, the designation will enhance Springfield’s ability to attract tourists.