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Columbia County officials target infrastructure growth

Posted: November 23, 2014 - 12:21am
Rep. Barry Fleming addresses the Pre-Legislative Breakfast on Nov. 18.
Rep. Barry Fleming addresses the Pre-Legislative Breakfast on Nov. 18.

With the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce announcing five-star accreditation Tuesday, Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature said they plan to work with community leaders to improve highway infrastructure, expand broadband coverage and reform income tax regulations to attract new businesses to the area.

“The stage has been set for us to succeed,” Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, said during the chamber’s annual pre-legislative breakfast.

Jackson told a crowd of more than 300 people at Savannah Rapids Pavilion that Gov. Nathan Deal hopes to take a “forceful approach” toward industrial growth in the next four years.

Jackson and other area legislators said that with continuing innovation in telemedicine at Georgia Regents University and cyber defense missions coming to Fort Gordon, their sights are set on policies that allow mobile technology to reach its full potential and bring private-sector jobs to the area.

Beth Shiroishi, the president of AT&T Georgia and the event’s keynote speaker, said local reform, paired with passage of state laws that provide lower prices, more choices and less regulation for cable TV customers and Internet providers, has helped her company achieve 94 percent broadband coverage.
“Innovation is driving our mobile technology more rapidly than we have ever seen,” said Shiroishi. “I don’t know about you, but sometimes it feels like the Jetsons have come to life.”

Leaders said increasing cyber capacity will spur significant growth, justifying the need for the $841 million in transportation special purpose local option sales tax revenue expected to be pumped into the region through the end of the decade to fund roads, bridges, airports and public transit projects.

Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, said voters approved $3.9 million in discretionary funding for the Transportation Investment Act.

“I know the rest of the state is jealous,” she said. “It is going to help us grow more business and expand, and Columbia County is going to be at the forefront of this.”

Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynes­boro, said the state has convened a transportation committee to study Georgia’s needs and improvements, which includes extending the Savannah River Parkway to help relieve traffic congestion.

Stone urged other parts of the state to follow the example set in the Augusta area and resist raising taxes and find other ways to promote growth.

“We need to think 20 years ahead when it comes to transportation because these infrastructure improvements do not come out overnight,” Stone said.

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said Georgia voters approving an amendment to the state constitution this month to prohibit the Legis­lature from raising income taxes above the current top rate of 6 percent could be the answer for attracting new commerce.

“I was very excited about that nearly 75 percent vote,” he said. “If you look around the South you will see other states, particularly North Carolina, lowering their income tax. Some states do not even have an income tax, and our economic development team has said those states have an advantage in attracting high-paying jobs.”

One advantage for the area, lawmakers agreed, is the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, one of only 18 in Georgia to be accredited and nine earning five-star honors from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The five-star designation, good for five years, allows the chamber to renew, improve and promote sound business practices, policies and procedures, said President and CEO Tammy Shepherd.

“This is your chamber,” Shepherd said. “This is your award.”

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