With a new session of the Georgia General Assembly set to start next month, Stephens County’s local legislators are looking ahead.
50th District State Senator John Wilkinson and newly elected 28th District State Representative Dan Gasaway spoke to local leaders at a pre-legislative breakfast forum Friday in downtown Toccoa.
Both legislators pointed to the budget as a main concern of the state in the upcoming year.
Senator Wilkinson said that while state revenues have increased somewhat in recent months, some healthcare-related issues may cause budget difficulties in the months ahead.
“Obviously, some of the big things that are going to affect the budget are going to be the Affordable Health Care Act and how it is going to affect the state budget and the assessment on the beds in the hospitals, the bed tax,” said Wilkinson. “It comes up for renewal and the decision is going to have to be made on that and if that is not renewed, there will be a $400 million hole in the budget that will have to be filled somewhere else.”
Meanwhile, Gasaway said education is an area the state can look at, especially ways to perhaps to take advantage of online education.
“With what is changed in our country with the Internet and telecommunications, we can all sit at our home tonight and take a physics class at MIT,” said Gasaway. “I know most of us would not want to do that, but we can for free. Certainly that is challenging teaching and I think that this kind of investment is really where we need to go, because the cost of education is going (up) and we have to got to think outside the box on innovative ways to re-deliver it.”
Wilkinson agreed with the importance of education, noting that a skilled workforce is critical to economic development.
The two men also said they are continuing to keep Highway 17 on the front burner in Atlanta, specifically finding additional funding for the northern part of the widening of the highway between Memorial Drive in Toccoa and Scott Road in Eastanollee.
Both legislators also took time to comment on the Wilbros odor controversy, stating that they are both concerned about the odor and its effect on the community.
Wilkinson said he and Representative Gasaway have met with the EPD and he says he is confident progress can be made.
“They assured us that they are trying to work towards some kind of satisfactory settlement,” said Wilkinson. “Now if they enforce that (consent) order, I think that is one step in the right direction. I do think that it is a credit to the community and what you have done. I can assure you of this. You have gotten their attention.”
Gasaway agreed, pointing to the turnout at a November public hearing held by the EPD in Toccoa on the Wilbros issue.
“That had a significant impact, that public hearing, on our state government officials,” said Gasaway. “Not to say they were not working on the problem before, but I have sensed a tremendous acceleration in their efforts at all levels of state government since that time.”
The two men also talked about Lake Hartwell and water issues during the event.
Gasaway said that once down in Atlanta, it is important for the legislators from the region to work together in order to get things done.
“We have a lot of combined interests,” said Gasaway. “Some people think that regional cooperation is an assumption amongst the delegation, but that has not been the case in the past 15 years in the region to be honest with you and I have been involved in politics in the past 15 years. There has not been a lot of cooperation in the delegation because it was a partisan divide or a personality divide.”
Meanwhile, Wilkinson said it is also important for the local community to work together and present a positive image.
“I think all communities do better when the leadership, the county leadership, the city leadership, the Board of Education, and everybody can get together on a regular basis and stay on the same page,” said Wilkinson.
The Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce sponsored Friday’s forum.