Hall County’s delegation in the Georgia General Assembly fielded questions from a crowd of about 600 on health care, technology, education and other issues Thursday morning at the new Lanier Technical College campus.
The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues event is an annual tradition. It was the Ramsey Conference Center’s first major event since Lanier Tech moved to its new campus off of Ga. 365 earlier this month.
State Reps. Matt Dubnik, Emory Dunahoo and Lee Hawkins, all Gainesville Republicans, attended Thursday, along with State Sens. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, and John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa.
State Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, whose district includes a portion of Hall County, was unable to attend Thursday.
With Deal’s time as governor coming to an end and the next legislative session set to begin on Jan. 14, legislators discussed their priorities moving forward and how statewide issues connect to people at home in Hall.
Funding for public schools
Tax exemptions, particularly for seniors, have started debate in Hall over the past year, as schools look to fill the funding gap. Legislators discussed how schools could be funded and how exemptions play a role.
They agreed that education funding should be a priority, and it is a complicated issue.
“I don’t think there’s any one answer. I think we’re going to have to continue to depend on property taxes, sales taxes, possibly new sources of revenue as we move forward,” Wilkinson said.
Miller said education is tied to quality of life, and having well-funded schools can ensure that families want to stay in Hall County and in Georgia.
“We want this to be a place where they can educate their children, where they can have a good quality of life, and I think in order to do that, we have to support our schools,” Miller said. “Every time there’s an exemption, someone else has to pay a little more.”
The legislators said they were also concerned about the burden on seniors who have retired, and they want to find a way to fund schools without worsening seniors’ financial struggles.
“I think we have to come up with a 1 percent or 1.5 percent where we can charge and everybody pays, not just property owners but we have a lot more people that take advantage of the education process,” Dunahoo said.
Hawkins said ESPLOST, a penny sales tax that funds local schools, could be an alternative funding source.
Protecting community hospitals
The Certificate of Need program is a Georgia Department of Community Health program that evaluates proposals for new or expanded health care services or facilities. The goal of the program is to avoid duplication of services and improve access to health care.
Hawkins said the program was designed to protect the investments of hospitals that offer specialized services, like The Heart Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Community hospitals suffer when private hospitals can afford to only treat patients with insurance, he said.
“If you have a private entity, for-profit hospital or clinic move in to the area and treat only insured patients and cash pay patients, then they can effectively charge less for the treatment because they’re not charging non-payers. That is very harmful to our community hospitals,” Hawkins said.
Miller also said hospitals who treat indigent patients should be protected, noting the closures of several rural hospitals that have forced patients to travel to larger cities to get health care.
Legislators were asked about the possibility of wireless companies putting small cell antennae on poles to help with capacity as demand for high-speed internet increases.
Dubnik said small cell technology and rural broadband were issues raised to him frequently during the most recent legislative session. In the past, there have been “two Georgias,” he said, with metro Atlanta having easier access to resources than the rest of the state. That is changing, but there is still a discrepancy, he said.
Businesses, local governments, schools and industries such as health care rely on broadband access, so expanding access should be a priority, Dubnik said.
Dunahoo said the necessary equipment could also be installed underground so aesthetics are less of a concern.
“It’s like beautiful Green Street. Who wants to drive and see a telephone pole with little towers or little configurations on top of it?” Dunahoo said.