LULA — It was a small group, but not a quiet one, that met with state Rep.-elect Lee Hawkins on a rainy Monday night at Lula City Hall.
Hawkins, who begins his term Jan. 1 representing House District 27, which comprises mostly North Hall, talked with about a dozen residents on a range of hot-button issues in what was one of several town-hall meetings Hawkins hopes to hold before legislators start the 2013 session in January.
The chatter ranged from tight state finances to the charter schools amendment, which, if approved by voters Nov. 6, would effectively give a state-issued commission the power to approve charter schools.
Hawkins asked for a show of hands on how people felt they would vote on the issue, with half saying they were opposed and half undecided.
“Personally, I’m always in favor of the home rule component,” Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin said. “It’s better to let the local boards deal with that.”
Currently, charter schools approval is reserved for local boards of education, with the state board able to approve charters that the local boards opt out of.
A resolution proposing the amendment would re-establish a third party — the Georgia Charter Commission — that would have the final say in whether a charter school can be established.
State Superintendent John Barge has come out publicly against the amendment, saying the General Assembly plans to come up with more than $430 million in new state money over the next five years to fund the commission and its charter schools.
“Instead, this $430 million should be used to restore the austerity cuts to students in Georgia’s traditional public schools — including those in Georgia’s locally approved charter schools,” he has said.
Hawkins said Monday night he has trouble with the amendment’s financial component.
“We’ve only got so much money in this (budgetary) pie chart and where is this ($430 million) going to come from?” he said.
However, he said he can see both sides to the debate.
“I can tell you that most, if not all, the leaders in the House and the Senate support this amendment, and the reason they do is because they have seen kids in failing schools and have no way out and ... some of the school boards are dysfunctional,” Hawkins said.
“That’s the not the case in Hall County and Gainesville ... but what I hear is it’s not that way in all school systems.”
Another key discussion point was how the state proceeds after the failure of the July 31 transportation sales tax referendum in nine of 12 regions across the state, including the Georgia Mountains region that consists of Hall and 12 other area counties.
That topic ignited a discussion over whether the state should raise the gas tax, which is the primary source for transportation funding.
“I have a problem in raising the gas tax because it impacts so much,” Hawkins said, adding that fluctuating gas prices not only affect average motorists but businesses that rely on transportation for commerce.
Jimmy Echols, whose family operates Jaemor Farms off Ga. 365, said he favors raising the tax.
“I think it needs to be phased in 2 cents a year for 10 years or whatever it takes,” he said.
Lula Mayor Milton Turner said he “would have a hard time raising any taxes right now.
“With my business, I don’t get to raise wholesale price. Tied into the chicken industry, our operating cost is already (up) threefold in the last 10 years because of power (usage) and taxes.”
He said he believes the tax referendum failed because “people said we cannot afford any more taxes right now.”
Jim Grier of Lula said he believes “people are more accepting of a gas tax to support roads than a sales tax because it’s more directly tied to the use of the roadways.
“I personally like the proposal that came up a couple years ago about privatizing tolls for roadways. We don’t have very many tollways in Georgia, so that’s going to have some resistance. ... Something like that focuses the revenue directly on the projects that it’s going to be used for.”
Bergin said he believes “the mechanism on how we distribute the money” for roads is key.
“I’ve got to believe that (the) more proficient with every dollar we spend, the better off we’ll be,” he said. “If we’re going to spend money toward commerce, it’s going to bring more business to the state and that’s going to bring more property taxes.
“We shouldn’t build a road in the state of Georgia that doesn’t bring commerce — that’s a big mistake we’ve made, certainly in South Georgia.”