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Transportation, taxes and religious freedom top legislative agenda
Ben Watson
State Sen. Ben Watson

Last year, the Georgia General Assembly took on transportation and brought home a historic, massive bill to address that issue. This year, taxes and religious freedom are high on the agenda.

The four state legislators representing at least part of Bryan County — Sen. Dr. Ben Watson, R-Savannah; Reps. Ron Stephens and Jesse Petrea, both R-Savannah; and Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet — will join their colleagues Monday to tackle those issues and others when the Legislature convenes in Atlanta for the 2016 session.

When Stephens spoke at the Grits and Government Legislative Breakfast last month in Richmond Hill, he brought up consideration of a decrease in the state income tax as something to watch for. Known as the More Take-Home Pay Act, House Bill 445 calls for the state personal and corporate income-tax rates to gradually decrease from 6 percent to 4 percent, the sales-tax rate to increase from 4 percent to 5 percent, a 28-cent-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes and the elimination of many tax credits, according to

Stephens said that “diversity is a virtue for Georgia” when it comes to taxing mechanisms. A mix of state income and sales taxes, for example, gives the state options for incentives like income-tax credit to draw in companies. The revenue diversity is a marked contrast from neighboring states Tennessee and Florida, which do not have state income taxes but rely heavily on sales taxes.

Petrea said he does not know what the bill’s chances are, but he knows it will be discussed a lot this session. Also on the tax front, Petrea added that he has introduced a bill that would eliminate tax on veterans’ income, balancing that out with an 18-cents-per-pack cigarette-tax increase.

“I’m real excited about trying to get it passed,” he said.

Also on the tax front, Watson said there will be consideration for sending to voters a proposal to devote the excise tax on fireworks to trauma networks and retired firefighters. It would require a two-thirds approval in the House and Senate before voters would get to weigh in.

Watson believes transportation — on the heels of last year’s transportation bill that will raise about $900 million, per — will remain an issue this year and in the coming years as a strategic plan gets hammered out.

Also, he said, truck safety should be a topic of discussion in the wake of the deaths of five Georgia Southern University nursing students in a vehicle accident last year in Bryan County and the resulting lawsuits aimed at the trucking company at the center of it. He said major trucking companies don’t seem to have many issues, as they have installed safety features on their trucks. However, some of the smaller operations have not.

Stephens said that the titling of vehicles is going to get looked at again this year. When the Assembly got rid on sales tax for vehicles, replacing it with a title fee of 7 percent of the vehicle’s value, it created problems. One is that some businesses are being hurt by the massive title fees to get cars moved from one state to the other.

Additionally, Stephens is sponsoring HB 356, which would eliminate sales tax on boats and replace it with a 4 percent title fee.

Watson discussed legislation related to religious freedom that is expected to get attention this year. Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has proposed the Pastor Protection Act, which, Watson said, makes it clear that a pastor or religious leader is not required to marry someone if it’s contradictory to his or her faith. Watson said the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage left that issue “a little bit ambiguous.”

Also, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which stalled in committee in 2015, may get a second life. Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, told public-radio station WABE in Atlanta last April that he would bring the legislation back to the 2016 session. Petrea said the bill was very popular in his district, but was demonized and mischaracterized by the media and the opposing party. He said that the version President Bill Clinton signed has been in existence for 23 years on the federal level and has never been used to discriminate against anyone. Rather, he said, it is used to ensure the government doesn’t infringe on individual religious beliefs.

The representative added that about 30 other states have established their own version of the federal bill in order to get the same protection. He said that Georgia’s bill may have some compromise language to get more legislators to agree to it.

Some issues of particular interest to Bryan County include the long-in-gestation interchange project at Interstate 95 and Belfast Keller Road, which Stephens said needs to be front and center now that the transportation bill has been passed.

Petrea added that there almost certainly will be an eminent-domain bill that would remove private entities from access to that right. Energy company Kinder Morgan is seeking to invoke eminent domain to build its proposed multi-state Palmetto Pipeline, 7 miles of which would run through Bryan County. South Bryan also would house a terminal with six to eight tanks, some of which could hold as much as 100,000 barrels of oil and move up to 25,000 barrels of fuel products per day.

Petrea said statewide issues to watch for this session include education reform — particularly merit pay for teachers — and casino gambling, with some of the proceeds used to fund the HOPE Scholarship.

Watson suspects that the times that fireworks are allowed to be discharged will get looked at.

A spokeswoman for Tankersley said the representative would not be available for comment before press time.

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