By Sarah Wibell
Georgia’s future is bright, according to State Representative Dave Belton, who believes under the leadership of the new Governor, Brian Kemp, Georgia will continue to expand and diversify its booming economy while improving the quality of education and job training opportunities across the state.
Belton met with constituents on January 23 at Madison Chophouse Grille to share information about Georgia’s current state and upcoming legislation as well as to respond to questions from the attendees. Afterward, County Manager Adam Mestres shared information about an upcoming special election for a proposed one percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Senator Burt Jones was unable to participate as he was detained due to committee hearings. Bob Hughes, President of the Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce, relayed, “He apologizes that he couldn’t be here, but he said we’ve got the best person over here (indicating Belton), and he’s going to tell you everything you need to know.”
“Georgia is doing really well right now,” Belton acknowledged. “The national politics – I’m not going to comment on that – that’s not good, but what Georgia has done has been really, really good.”
Belton stated that Georgia is the fourth fastest growing state in America, has added 800K jobs, has the lowest unemployment rate in decades at four percent, is the eighth largest economy in America, and is making more movies than Hollywood. He added that Georgia has one of the best Criminal Justice programs in the nation, trains inmates to be job-ready upon release, and reduced driver-related deaths by over 300 in the last year with the help of making texting and driving illegal. He further pointed out that Savannah is the 4th largest port in America and that Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the busiest airport in the world.
The state is considering establishing regional Joint Development Authorities modeled after the local JDA comprising Morgan, Jasper, Newton, and Walton counties. Hughes commented, “Our JDA has been in existence for 20 years, and it’s just within the last five years that we’ve seen success. So, you’ve got to be in it for the long-haul; otherwise, it’s not going to do any good. But I’m glad to hear that the state is trying to do that because economic development is regional by nature.”
In Morgan County, Belton reflected on an increased average household income which has risen from $37K in 2000 to $58K in 2018, the Morgan Medical Center, the new career academy, and the progress of the Georgia Conservation and Safari Park. Moreover, Shire (acquired by Takeda on January 8th) is the 10th largest pharmaceutical center in the world, and Facebook was recognized as the Regional Deal of the Year in 2018 by the Georgia Economic Developers Association. Plans moving forward include the widening of Highway 441 and the installation of a traffic light at Bethany Road.
Referencing Governor Brian Kemp, Belton remarked, “I really believe he is going to take what Governor Deal did and keep going in the same direction…pro-business and pro-jobs. He promised a teacher pay raise, and he is going to deliver…Next year, it will be $5K. What he promised this year is a $3K pay raise to all teachers…He promised school safety. This year every single school will get $30K to improve their school safety…He’s promised a mental health counselor in every school…He’s promised to take on gang violence…work to make healthcare more affordable and accessible…mentioned a two percent merit increase for all state employees…(and is working toward implementing rural broadband and small cell towers).”
Education was discussed at both state and local levels. Belton asserted that education is the best it has ever been in Georgia with higher ACT and SAT scores than the national average, highest graduation rate at 82 percent, 13th best average Advanced Placement (AP) score in the country, and skyrocketing numbers of dual-enrollment students increasing from 4K to 33K in the last few years. The Morgan County School System had a 92 percent graduation rate last year, is the 8th best system and the best charter school system in the state.
Belton noted that potentially controversial legislation has been proposed to control school calendars: “Some senators want longer summer breaks for economic development reasons, and the senate also wants to vote on various school-choice issues.” When comments were made from attendees that the discussed longer summers are less beneficial to student retention of information taught in the past school year, Belton said that he was against this legislation and “from what I’ve heard all of the teachers are against it.”
In answer to a question as to whether Governor Brian Kemp’s teacher pay raise would be in the form of a bonus or a consistent addition to educators’ paychecks, Belton stated, “My understanding is (the pay raise will be) applied to the salary from now on; by the time the four years are up all teachers across the board will be paid (the additional) $5K every year on.”
Belton is planning a Master Teacher Program in which teachers mentor other teachers. He also mentioned other proposed legislation that may prove controversial such as growing cannabis, election boxes, and Medicaid.
During the meeting, Mary Jo Johnson with the Wellbridge Community asked, “I’m interested in knowing what the state is doing from the standpoint of our growing aging population…and if there’s anything you can share with us about senior benefits?”
Belton responded that there was a pay raise for retirees last year, adding: “I think the biggest thing we’re doing is healthcare. We have a new study group that’s working to define how to live with healthcare better…we are a very low tax state and don’t tax seniors on income at all.”
County Manager Adam Mestres provided an overview of a special election regarding TSPLOST to be held on March 19 from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. If the referendum to raise the sales tax by one percent passes, the five-year tax would go into effect July 1. The county estimates suggest that $18 million would be raised over the five years to be divvied up among the cities and unincorporated county area based on population.
“TSPLOST is a one percent sales tax, different than any other sales tax we have here currently in the county,” stated Mestres. “The current sales tax is seven percent. Four of those pennies go to the state of Georgia, and then three pennies stay here locally – that is our Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax pennies. A county penny goes to the county and the cities. Our ESPLOST penny is for education with that money going to further the building of the schools and the great job that the Board of Education is doing. And then we have the Local Option Sales Tax that is a one penny tax everybody pays here locally. That is a direct reflection of your property tax bill which you get every year, and you’ll see that in the form of a rollback. So that money comes straight back to the property taxpayers in the county. Those are the three pennies that we have locally, and we’re proposing a fourth penny in March. That penny would be dedicated directly for transportation infrastructure.
“There are currently 608 road miles in the entire county, 448 of those miles are in the unincorporated area of Morgan county, 364 of the 448 are paved roads, so that leaves 84 miles of road that are dirt, rock or gravel…90 miles are state roads…
“We have a $1.4 million roads budget, and a $17 million general fund – I’m talking about Morgan County, not any of the city data. Eight percent of our budget is comprised of roads – only $1.4 million. About a million of that is allocated toward salaries, personnel, and benefits. I’m not talking about people who are making a lot of money. I’m talking about people who are making $11-12 an hour, making far below the wages they should be making in comparable jurisdictions. It takes a lot to be able to do the work that needs to be done on the roads. So, that leaves us $400K a year to do roadwork…to resurface a mile of road is somewhere between $140-160K.”
All seven precincts will be open for the special election on TSPLOST March 19, and early voting will be at the Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration Office February 25 through March 15 on weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.