State legislators address concerns

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CUMMING, Ga. — Transportation, taxes and city incorporations were the focus of the post-legislative session breakfast held Tuesday, May 6 at the Forsyth Conference Center.
Members of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and the Lanier Forsyth Rotary Club met with state legislators to discuss issues concerning Forsyth County.
Paul Chambers fielded questions from attendees via text message for Sens. Steve Gooch and Jack Murphy and state Reps. Mike Dudgeon, Geoff Duncan, Mark Hamilton and Kevin Tanner.
“We’re here today to discuss issues important to our community,” Chambers said. “And it appears the top concern is transportation.”
Transportation
Murphy said transportation is a big issue in Forsyth County, but state involvement requires amending the constitution, which could take years.
“That’s not to say it won’t happen,” the state senator said. “But it will be hard.”
Murphy also said if an amendment is changed, the governor doesn’t need to sign off on it.
Dudgeon said the county’s growth is unique to the state and impacts transportation and schooling.
“If you become a legislation that restricts property rights and restricts building, etcetera, that’s not going to sell well to the rest of our colleagues,” Dudgeon said. “So, we’re really trying to look at legislation for the whole state.”
When asked about funding for the widening of Ga. 400, Gooch, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, said both the House and Senate are concerned about transportation issues statewide.
“Both the House and Senate passed, almost unanimously, a resolution to form a study committee over the summer that will travel all over the state from eight different locations and times, and we encourage the community to get involved,” he said.
Gooch said the primary focus of the committee is funding and that the Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money before fall 2014.
“If that happens, any Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) programs with federal money attached to them will come to a screeching halt,” Gooch said.
Gooch said there is nothing more important to the state than to have Congress extend or renew the Highway Trust Fund.
Gooch said the process to improve transportation issues isn’t to determine how to raise taxes in the state, but determine what sources of revenue can be used for funding.
“Tolling is probably our No.1 option on anything we build forward on any major interstate,” Gooch said.
He said Ga. 400 would probably have tolling in the near future to alleviate congestion.
“The first project we have to tackle is the intersection of I-285 and Ga. 400,” Gooch said. “That’s where the biggest bottleneck is, and then as we move north, we have to have more lanes and interchanges and bridges.
“We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars,” Gooch said. “The interchange at I-285 and Ga. 400 is already estimated to be nearly $1 billion.”
Gooch said that project would wipe out funding for other programs across the state for a year.
He said transportation and funding issues are major issues and that Forsyth County is top on his list of priorities.
City of Sharon Springs
The state representatives addressed questions surrounding the incorporation of the city of Sharon Springs.
“I’m open to it if the constituents support it,” Dudgeon said. “But that means a town hall meeting with a room so packed people are standing outside.”
Duncan said his experience with incorporating the city of Milton proved the process is complicated.
“The desire cannot be based on emotions,” Duncan said. “It’s important for everyone to keep an open mind.”
Hamilton said any possible city must come through a statewide law, and not all are approved.
“Six didn’t get approved in the last session,” Hamilton said, “It’s very difficult to become a city.”
He said the process is expensive and that constituents need to decide if they want to pay a tax increase to be part of a new city.
Education
Dudgeon addressed Forsyth County’s education program.
“We have a great educational program here,” he said. “But it’s not true for the rest of the state.”
Dudgeon said he supports digital learning and thinks the county exceeds the rest of the state in digital learning.
He said the concern should be focused on rural Georgia.
“I’d like to see 100 megawatts of bandwidth throughout schools in the entire state to access digital learning,” he said.
Tanner said it’s important to keep the educational needs of the community local.
“We need to get the state government out of the way and let teachers do their jobs,” the state representative said.
Lake Lanier
Attendees wanted more information about efforts to ensure the future water supply of Lake Lanier.
Duncan said it’s a federal issue and not easy to fix.
“Raising the level of the lake by two feet is an option,” he said. “Because the lake is a very important part of our community.”
Murphy said he supports raising lake levels.
“Washington, D.C. handles this,” Murphy said. “They said studies need to be done to raise lake levels.”
Murphy said he has watched lake levels rise and fall for 30 years.
“It’s raised by two feet over 300 times already,” he said. “They know what needs to be done.”
Hamilton said endangered species drive the decisions surrounding Lake Lanier.
“The lake doesn’t collect enough rain and the state had to take proactive measures due to the growing endangered species list,” he said.
He said some people are more concerned for aquatic life than the water supply.
State income tax
The final concern focused on the probability of eliminating the state income tax.
All five elected officials said they favor a Fair Tax (to eliminate income tax in favor of a consumption tax) but it is an expensive option.
“The elimination of the state income tax would have to be phased out over several years,” Gooch said. “It’s expensive and would likely require an additional sales tax approach.”
Murphy said he supports eliminating the state income tax, but it would be a long-term process and the money would need to be replaced from other avenues.
“It’s over $9 billion annually and almost half goes to Georgia schools and 30 percent to public safety and Medicaid,” Murphy said. “The other 18 percent left over goes to fund several other areas, and it would be hard to eliminate $9 billion of funding to those programs.”
Dudgeon, Tanner, Hamilton and Duncan all said eliminating the tax would be good, but finding the revenue elsewhere is complicated.
Gooch said the state is still the best place to do business in the country.
“People want to come to Georgia,” he said.
FH 05-21-14