State Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, discussed transportation projects and religious liberty among other topics this morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce as part of Georgia Cities Week.
The event, held at the Richmond Hill City Center, drew about 60 people including elected officials, city and county department heads and candidates for office.
“Last year I said this legislative session would be short and not controversial,” Watson said. “I was half right.”
He said session was finished before Easter and the Legislature balanced the state budget, indicating that incumbents worked quickly to finish since they are not allowed to raise campaign funds during session.
“I knew the religious freedom issue would come up, but I didn’t think campus carry would,” he said. “The religious liberty bill was left over from last year and had already been in the press a lot.”
Gov. Nathan Deal three weeks ago vetoed House Bill 757, which sought to protect faith-based organizations from participating in activities that go against their beliefs. Watson voted yes on versions of the bill twice on Feb. 19 but was excused on March 16 when the final vote was taken.
“I think everyone can agree that pastors and priests who refuse to perform same-sex marriages should be protected,” he said. “And faith-based organizations such as Catholic adoption agencies that have contracts with the state but don’t believe in placing children in same-sex households should have their beliefs honored.”
It gets more complicated, Watson said, when it comes to private businesses such as bakery owners whose beliefs prohibit them from making a cake for a same-sex wedding.
“It’s a situation where perception became reality,” he said. “I don’t fault Gov. Deal for vetoing the bill. It became a lightning rod and as we’ve seen North Carolina is still catching grief.”
Watson said the state needs to take a step back and see what happens in other states.
“I feel sure we’ll pass it again,” he noted.
Georgia House Bill 859, which Watson also supported, would allow holders of concealed carry permits who are at least 21 to possess weapons on public university properties except in dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses or at athletic events. Deal has until May 3 to sign or veto the bill.
“A 21-year-old who has passed a background check is not a person I’m worried about,” Watson said. “Show me a person with a concealed carry permit who has committed murder.”
As for transportation funding, Watson said the recent package of bills on the matter is “the most important thing we’ve done” since the creation of the HOPE scholarship.
“I’m the first one to say that the federal government is dysfunctional,” Watson said. “But they did pass a transportation bill that will allow us to do some planning.”
Watson said the Georgia Legislature shifted the 4-cent sales tax on gas to an excise tax so that all of the money will go toward transportation. Previously one penny had been going to the general fund. And a $5 hotel/motel tax will raise $1 billion annually for transportation.
“That’s especially big here in the Savannah area and along the I-95 corridor because of all the tourism,” he said. “Now we’ll have enough money for matching funds when the federal government is selecting projects.”
Chief among those projects in Bryan County is the interchange on I-95 at Belfast Keller Road, which is scheduled to be bid out in March 2017.
Watson also said a top priority is redesigning the I-95 and I-16 interchange and adding another lane to I-16 between I-95 and I-516.
“They are experimenting with truck-only lanes in the Atlanta area, so that may be something to consider with all of the 18-wheelers going back and forth from the ports,” he said.
Watson also said the “flyover” at Georgia 204 and King George Boulevard is “about one-third done” after two years of work.
“It’s painful,” he joked. “I had to come through there this morning.”
Watson, in his first term as senator after serving two terms in the state House of Representatives, is running unopposed for re-election.