Theres a story about two men riding a two-seater bicycle to the top of a mountain. After much straining and effort, they finally reach the top. Whew! said the man who had been riding in front, I never thought wed make it! Yeah, replied his partner, and if I hadnt been standing on the brakes the whole way up, wed have rolled all the way back down!
Somehow, this past legislative session brought that story to mind. I never thought wed make the end of it, and its clear that some folks were standing hard on the brakes. In spite of that, however, there were some positive developments to come out of this session, and I wanted to share those.
One of our biggest achievements was the preservation of state support for the foreign language program in our schools. Our elementary foreign language program is ranked No. 1 nationally, yet some were determined to eliminate it for reasons that defy understanding. This program also has clear benefits to students that overflow into other educational efforts, but it was a fight to maintain the necessary financial resources for this program to continue.
I want to express my deep gratitude to all the parents and school supporters who lobbied on behalf of this program. Although our government can appear unresponsive at times, this is an excellent example of the power of grass-roots politics, and a reminder that politicians must ultimately answer to the people, not the other way around.
A number of years ago, the Republican Caucus endorsed the idea of tax holidays to spur economic growth. Finally, in this election year, the governor and the Democrats agreed with us, and permitted Georgias first tax holiday this past month. I felt there was an excessive and confusing number of restrictions on the items eligible for the tax holiday, but its a good start. The Columbia County delegation intends to keep working for expansion of this concept, as well as other enhancements to the tax code which will keep sales-tax dollars at home.
We also revisited the issue of appropriate regulation for the natural gas industry. It is clear our initial effort to bring market forces to bear on an uncompetitive situation were not implemented successfully, and our reform was itself in need of reforming. We will have to monitor and refine this process as time goes on. As more data become available, we will be able to ensure a genuinely open and competitive gas market, which will benefit all consumers.
As we enter the fifth year of a devastating drought, the state is taking a much harder look at our limited water resources. As you remember, there were discussions of piping water from the Savannah River basin to Habersham County; while that proposal has thankfully died, the issue has become more important than ever. Georgia is already working its way through delicate negotiations with Florida and Alabama concerning the flow from the Chattahoochee River, and now South Carolina and Georgia are preparing to enter into similar conversations regarding the Savannah River.
In the absence of sustained rainfall, we will be faced with many hard choices concerning the use of water, and there are no easy answers. We remain on voluntary water restrictions, but more severe rationing may occur if the situation does not improve.
As was reported recently, state Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, and I sponsored legislation that will create a study committee to evaluate the potential benefits of expanding the nearby airport in Thomson. The simple fact is that for businesses in Columbia County, neither Bush Field nor Daniel Field are accessible enough, and we believe a stronger collaboration with McDuffie County could yield substantial returns for both counties. We can no longer wait for others to look out for the economic well-being of Columbia County, and the time of waiting for others to take care of us is long past.
It is with sadness over recent events that I express my frustration over the Legislatures failure to deal with school bus safety. Brush led the effort to strengthen safety and training requirements, encompassed in Aleanas Law, named for our own Aleana Johnson. We were not successful, however, and I urge all parents to join us in working to complete this task next year.
Finally, I can report with satisfaction that our delegation passed legislation creating the position of a chairman for Columbia County who will be elected on a countywide basis this year. The salary for the post remains the same, $10,500, but the chairman will have a four-year term and a vote just like the other four commissioners. The County Commission will therefore remain the same size, at five members, and we believe this combination will yield the greatest benefit for our county. This change was implemented in response to overwhelming support given to the idea in the general referendum of November 2000, and ultimately our job is to honor those wishes.
As always, it has been a privilege serving Columbia County in the Legislature. I appreciate your input, and welcome your energy and effort as we continue to improve our economic future and quality of life.
(State Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, represents the 113th District.)
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