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Senator Eric Johnson gave what he called a "T session" during a recent Richmond Hill Rotary Club meeting.
On Thursday, Dec. 6, his topics covered transportation, taxes, teaching and water.
Georgia’s new DOT Commissioner, Gina Abrams, is a young professional engineer, hired to "shake up" the department, Johnson said.
"GDOT is in 1,000 lawsuits. There are over 5,000 active projects right now – not a single one of them has a project manager in charge of them and not a single one has a budget that’s tracking where the money’s coming and going," he said. "There has been $900 million spent on engineering roads that have no funding to be built."
While Johnson said the statistics are a definite problem, they’ve reached out to Abrams to help find a solution. She is working, in her first week as commissioner, to turn around several departments.
"We have a lot of confidence in her and we are looking to move forward with transportation," Johnson said, pointing to falling real estate numbers and increased costs of asphalt and steel as part of the problem.
Locally, he said the General Assembly might propose a regional sales tax so that Chatham, Effingham and Bryan could get together and vote on a penny sales tax for five years to do several road projects.
"Until we think we get a handle on the DOT, you probably won’t see any attempt to raise any transportation funds. Even if the General Assembly pushes toward that, it will only be subject to voter approval," he said. "We’re trying to get faster on our road delivery. It takes us an average of seven years to get a road project done now, and that’s several years longer than a lot of the other states."
On taxes, Johnson said it’s easy for residents to say ‘tax everyone else, don’t tax us.’
"We’re trying to deal with tax reform," he said. "If you look at the 21st century economy, you probably would shift more of it into consumption or sales taxes, and more into service."
Johnson said Speaker Glenn Richardson’s original plan just didn’t balance out.
"He’s still doubtful you could make up the billions of dollars that it takes to replace it, forget the local control issue, which is a valid argument and forget the how you handle Bryan County’s growth to another county’s lack of growth, and all the things that come with it," he said.
According to Johnson, the proposal never would have passed. New plans have looked into removing property taxes for schools on homes – about two-thirds of taxes in Bryan County – and replacing them with a sales tax formula, based mostly on groceries. While Johnson thinks the Stephens-Day plan could be the solution, County Administrator Phil Jones disagreed.
"Stephens-Day is still not a tax reform, it’s a tax shift," Jones said. "We need to modify the tax system, not shift the burden. The Stephens-Day shifts the burden onto businesses…I think we need a major review of the tax system."
But Jones said he appreciates Johnson’s willingness to put himself on the line for tax change.
"He’s not trying to get anyone’s votes and I think this is what he truly believes is the right way to do it," Jones said. "We just have a difference of opinion."
Johnson joked that, in typical House fashion, they’re not entirely sure what they’re going to do yet.
"Let’s just say the House wants to remove some property taxes and replace them with some sales taxes and the details will be worked out later," he said, noting his only real concern of moving toward a consumption tax is that corporations and service providers may be tempted to move their businesses outside Georgia to avoid the taxes they would incur.
"Remember, virtually all these proposals require a two-thirds super majority, because they all require a constitutional amendment, so you’re going to have to get bipartisan support and affirmation by the voters. If you want anything dramatic done you want it done through a constitutional amendment, because that’s a decent move," he said.
Education reform has not gotten enough publicity in Johnson’s eyes, even for Bryan County’s school district, which he described as a great system in a rich county.
"With the millage that schools charge here, you can raise enough money to do good things on top of what the state sends down here," he said.
But there are also poor schools in Georgia. Currently, the state is being sued by about 10 districts, who say they can’t afford to pay for education – a state constitutional right. To help, Governor Sonny Perdue has created a school funding study committee called Investing in Excellence in Education.
Johnson explained this new program has three proposed pieces of legislation: A new formula to help a county allot where state-issued funds have to go; a new ratio for how the balance between state and local governments pay for education; and more local control and flexibility in spending school funds, with obligations and accountability on the district level.
"The proposal is going to have five levels of flexibility, from the existing ‘everything’s in a tight little box,’ up to virtually a charter school system where class-size regulations go away and teacher pay even goes away, so they can do pay for performance," he said. "For every step up in flexibility, there will be a contract between the school district and Georgia Department of Education, saying ‘this is what our graduation rates, test scores, etc. are going to be.’ If there’s failure of that contract, it won’t be the system; it will be at the school level."
Coming down to his final issue, Johnson said there is about three months of water left in Atlanta. The next step will be to shut down hotels and conventions in the metro area.
"We saw this coming. Atlanta’s got the largest population with the smallest source of water in the country," he said. "We put in place a bill to create a statewide water management tool that will be very hard for the legislature to get around."
The draft proposal will spend about $30 million in figuring out how much water is available and set up a control, by basin, determining who gets how much, conservation rules for builders and homeowners, and much more – a plan which he said will likely be controversial in coming years.
"I could not be more proud to serve this community. It’s a great community; it’s got great leadership and you’re very lucky to live here," he concluded. "I look forward to going through another session and dealing with some of these issues that we face."