Six members of Forsyth County’s legislative delegation to the Georgia General Assembly were on hand this week to answer questions from local business and community leaders.
On Tuesday morning, state Reps. Marc Morris, Sheri Gilligan, Todd Jones and Kevin Tanner, state Sen. Steve Gooch and state Sen.-elect Greg Dolezal answered questions from members of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club of Lanier-Forsyth at a pre-legislative breakfast ahead of the 2019-20 legislative session, which starts on Jan. 14.
“This is a thoughtful, common-sense, intelligent group of people representing Forsyth County,” said Paul Chambers, with AT&T, the event’s moderator.
Those in attendance had a chance to pick what they felt was the top legislative priority in 2019. Among those who responded, 40 percent answered transportation and transit, 24 percent said taxes and fiscal policy, 18 percent said addressing Medicaid Expansion and Healthcare, 9 percent said workforce development and 9 percent said improving schools and education policy.
Attendees also had a chance to pre-submit questions and text in questions during the breakfast. Below are some of the responses by the delegation.
District 27 state Sen.-elect Greg Dolezal
Dolezal will begin his first term in January after winning his race against Democrat Steve Smith in November. He will replace former District 27 state Sen. Michael Williams, who ran for governor in 2018.
As the only newcomer this year, Dolezal was asked a question about his preferred committee assignments.
“I have not submitted my committee assignments yet, but when I look at those committees what I’m most interested in with the things we’re going to deal with in this legislative session, health care is up there for me, transportation is something I dipped my toes in the water in local politics when we started Fix Forsyth Traffic five years ago. I think regional transportation … is of personal importance,” Dolezal said. “Those are both committees I have my eye on.”
District 9 state Rep. Kevin Tanner
Also on the subject of transportation, Tanner answered a question on the impact on Ga. 400 from the new Atlanta-region Transit Link [or ATL], approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year.
Tanner sponsored House Bill 930, which created ATL, last session. The new system will allow 13 counties in metro Atlanta to pursue new funding sources and would create a new regional governing body for transit.
He said the state and federal governments have also contributed to the roadway.
“As a state, we put the largest amount of a budget for a transit project that we have ever committed and that is $100 million,” Tanner said. “Gov. Deal committed that $100 million to the 400 project.”
Tanner also noted the $184 million in Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, grant funding from the federal government to add two express lanes on each side of Ga. 400 from the North Springs Marta Station in Sandy Springs to McGinnis Ferry Road and one express lane in each direction from McGinnis Ferry to McFarland Parkway.
District 25 state Rep. Todd Jones
Growth and how it should be done are big issues in Forsyth, and Jones answered a question on school and transportation issues for fast-growing counties.
Jones said Forsyth and neighbors Cherokee and Dawson counties were among 10-12 counties in the state dealing with rapid growth and said a new formula for distributing state funds to counties should be used for those areas.
“We introduced this idea, I don’t think it’s going to take legislation, but it’s definitely taking cooperation, and sometimes that’s more difficult under the Gold Dome than legislation is,” Jones said. “Ultimately, the plan is to take the current capital formula, look at the amount that’s in there today … and then to say we’re going to use it the same way as a line of credit.”
Jones said under the plan the counties would be considered if they had doubled the growth of the state average of the previous five years and had an A rating or better insurance credit. Those counties could then draw money quicker than the current formula but would give a payback policy if the school system did not have full capacity within five years.
District 51 state Sen. Steve Gooch
Delegation members were asked whether the state should consider expanding Medicaid and whether Georgia was a tax “donor” state to states that had expanded. If not Medicaid expansion, officials were also asked to share how the state should address health care.
Gooch said he did not support an expansion of Medicaid but said the state should instead apply for waivers from the program and address issues with rural hospitals.
“I personally don’t support the expansion of Medicaid, and I was told there are roughly 600,000 more people in Georgia that would enroll immediately. The cost to Georgia to cover that is in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year,” Gooch said. “When the federal government finally phases out their portion of the share, then it would completely be the burden of the Georgia taxpayers.”
District 24 state Rep. Sheri Gilligan
Though Forsyth County Schools is often touted as the best system in the state, Georgia trends lower in the national rankings.
Answering a question on the subject, Gilligan said the state should follow Forsyth’s lead.
“I’m looking back there at the table where we have members of our board of [education] and I’m thinking, ‘Why can’t we duplicate what we have here,’” Gilligan said. “We have accountability partners. Years ago … [the system] partnered with the community to make sure everybody had mentors and that we had people that were working in the schools.”
She said the county also needs to improve broadband access since a growing amount of work is done online.
District 26 state Rep. Marc Morris
A big issue coming up next year will be the new voting machines in the state.
Morris said the state would have to upgrade but praised those who handle local election.
“It’s clear from a technology standpoint, we’re going to have to invest in upgrades in equipment,” Morris said. “But I kind of want to call a group out here in Forsyth County. If you’ve never seen an election be certified, I recommend you do that. That’s open to the public … They work tirelessly to make sure that every ballot is counted. When you walk into a precinct and you’re in the wrong precinct, they’re going to give you a chance to vote, they’re going to have you complete a provisional ballot. They’re going to work with you for three days ... to make sure that that vote counts.”