Legislative delegation talks Cherokee at forum

CANTON — Cherokee County’s legislative delegation updated Cherokee residents Monday night at a forum sponsored by the Cherokee County Republican Party. 

The state representatives and senators told the crowd of more than 60 about the bills they are sponsoring and their ideas for the future.

State Sens. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) and Barry Loudermilk (R-Cassville) were in attendance, as were Reps. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton), Michael Caldwell (R-Woodstock), John Carson (R-Marietta), Calvin Hill (R- Canton) and Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs. Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) was out of town for his son’s college interviews.

Hill is pursuing a bill to disallow anyone owing state or federal taxes to seek public office in Georgia.

He first introduced the measure in 2010, when it failed to garner the 120 votes needed to become a constitutional amendment. The vote was 116 in favor to 18 against.

“There were 34 Democrats that walked on it. Hopefully, this time we’ll find out who is for ethics reform and who isn’t,” he said.

As chair of the House Code Revision Committee, Hill said he and the committee members are reviewing the state’s code and looking to remove conflicting or obsolete laws.

“It’s going to be a long process going through it,” he said. “I hope we find several bills that need getting rid of.”

Loudermilk said the state and federal governments need to go back to basics.

“We have an overbearing executive, and out-of-control federal government and a complacent Congress,” he said, adding that states need to take back the lead from the federal government.

Loudermilk has introduced a bill that would allow veterans under the age of 21 to carry firearms.

“We send these guys off to foreign lands and give them a semi-automatic weapon ... but when they come back home, because they’re 19, we tell them they’re not mature enough to handle their own protection,” he said.

Loudermilk’s remarks were met with applause from those in attendance.

Loudermilk added that companies providing security services can’t hire young veterans because they are not allowed to carry weapons in Georgia.

When later asked about veterans who had been dishonorably discharged, Loudermilk said those discharges only arise out of serious issues.

“In almost every case, there’s something that would disqualify them. There wouldn’t be any reason, really, to write that into the law,” he said.

Loudermilk said he is also working on a religious liberty act and cleaning up some of the state’s immigration laws.

Ballinger said she has signed onto several pieces of legislation but is only sponsoring one bill so far, local legislation that would allow Cherokee County State Court to collect a $5 technology fee on all filings and use the collections for technology improvements.

As a member of the Judiciary Non-Civil committee, Ballinger has been reviewing two bills: a rewrite of the state’s wiretap laws and a bill to allow offenders to be charged with felony obstruction for hindering the duties of a park ranger, in line with obstruction against other law enforcement.

“A lot of times, we’re making minor tweaks, but hopefully they’ll make our state a little better,” Ballinger said.

Beach said the state needs to change its tiered tax credit system that gives businesses different levels of tax credits for locating in certain counties. Counties are tiered based on unemployment rate, per capita income and the percentage of residents under the poverty line.

“You can’t force a company to go where it doesn’t want to go,” Beach said.

While Beach said he supports initiatives like the Opportunity Zone, he noted Cherokee County should be cautious about “giving away the farm” to attract businesses.

Beach has introduced a resolution to phase out the state’s income tax over time.

He has also introduced a bill to change the way the state handles medical malpractice.

“Doctors are ordering tests that are unnecessary and unneeded to protect themselves,” he said.

In Georgia, Medicaid was billed $700 million for unnecessary medical tests in 2012, Beach said.

“If we could cut out $700 million, we wouldn’t have to furlough teachers,” he said.

Caldwell pre-filed legislation calling for term limits, which has gone to committee.

“We have no idea what future Congresses are going to look like. This is protection for future Georgians,” he said.

Caldwell said he has signed in support of six bills granting expanded access to firearms.

If the legislature were to tighten the state’s gun laws, Caldwell said such a move could be detrimental to industry and could ward off gun manufacturers looking to open facilities.

“We have a unique opportunity if we want to continue being that bastion of freedom as far as the Second Amendment,” Caldwell said.

Carson, a member of the Ways and Means committee, said he does not support plans for a new Atlanta Falcons stadium built with taxpayer money.

“I personally don’t see what’s wrong with the (Georgia) Dome, but it is economic development. Just don’t use taxpayer money to build it,” he said.

Carson added that he is also against using tax money to subsidize solar power.

He has introduced House Bill 312, a bill to update state code on several insurance matters.

Carson has introduced a bill that would allow counties to collect Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax at a fractional rate. The Cobb and Cherokee county commissions have signed resolutions in support of the bill.

“This would give citizens and counties flexibility. They can say ‘What do we need?’ and finance accordingly. It would get rid of these filler projects,” Carson said, adding that governments often add smaller projects to SPLOST lists to ensure they will be able to spend all the sales tax collected.

Carson has filed a bill to make the title fee that goes into effect March 1 tax deductible for state purposes. The ad valorem fee has been tax deductible, he said.

Turner said he wants to move toward a complete ban on lobbyist spending.

“I want to eliminate tax money being spent on lobbying activities. We should be able to work with local people. They shouldn’t have to hire a lobbyist,” he said.

Caldwell’s term limits bill is the first Turner has signed onto after being sworn in last week.

Turner said he wants to make it easier for Georgia businesses to do business with the state government.

Audience member Jack Staver asked the legislators if they would stand up against a proposed citizen lobbying fee.

Turner said he would not support limiting free speech but would support a fee for paid lobbyists.

“If someone comes down and is representing a group of people, there’s a serious difference between that and someone who’s paid,” he said.

Caldwell said he couldn’t commit to voting one way or another on the bill that includes the lobbying fee because the bill has already changed multiple times.

“If it looks the way it does right now, I will stand with you. We ought not to be taxing citizens for free speech,” he said.

Loudermilk said paid lobbyists should register and pay a fee to cover the registration costs.

“If the government says that because you’ve come to the Capitol five times, you have to register, that’s just a way of limiting your voice,” he said.

Loudermilk said he thinks more exposure is important for ethics reform.

“If you have full disclosure, you can determine whether your government is ethical or not,” he said.

Mike Sinco, a teacher with the Cherokee County School District, asked the legislators where they stand on House Bill 140, a bill that would expand a program allowing citizens up to $3,800 in tax credits for donating to non-profit organizations that provide scholarships for private schools. Sinco said he takes issue with the state’s refusal to release information about where the money goes.

Carson said the tax credits cost the state less than enrolling a child in public schools.

“It costs $4,300 per pupil for public education. This is a $3,800 credit, with the additional money coming from the parents. This credit is less than the state’s portion to educate a pupil,” he said, adding that he is in favor of school choice.

He said the credits could leave more money per pupil for children who still attend public school.

“I’m not saying yes, and I’m not saying no. I’m saying it’s an interesting idea,” he said.

Sinco said he wanted to see more transparency and proof that the scholarships created by the tax credits are going to low-income students.

Carson said the program was intended for all Georgia students, not just low-income ones.

Robert Chambers asked if anything could be done to reverse tax increases passed at the end of the 2011 legislative session, including an Internet sales tax.

Loudermilk said voting for the 2011 bill was a tough decision, but he felt it contained “more good than bad.”

Carson also said the bill contained good and bad and noted that the state is not taxing all Internet sales.

“It was a tax cut overall because it repealed the marriage penalty,” he said. “I could not find myself not voting for an overall tax cut.”

Dean Sheridan asked about transportation plans in light of the failure of TSPLOST.

“Regional is not going to work in this state,” Loudermilk said. “It has to be equal taxation across the state.”

Loudermilk said the price of petroleum is directly tied to the cost of road projects and suggested revamping the gas tax as a percentage instead of a flat rate.

“When the price per gallon of gas increases, the cost to build roads increases, and revenues are still down because the tax is per gallon,” he said, adding that the state should also look to move away from federal gas taxes.

Ballinger, a member of the house Transportation Committee, drew booing from the audience when she said she is “excited” about the committee’s work on the reversible toll lanes planned for Interstate 575.

She also said the committee is working on private-public partnerships and other initiatives.

Beach said Georgia is a donor state when it comes to federal gas taxes, getting back 88 cents for every dollar paid.

“If we got that 12 cents, that would go a long way,” he said.