Legislative Rural Caucus addressing variety of issues


At the midway point of the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly, the Legislative Rural Caucus, which I chair, is addressing a number of issues facing the communities and residents of rural Georgia, which makes up about two-thirds of the counties in this state.

The Rural Caucus, the second largest caucus in the Georgia General Assembly, is a bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives and Senate organized for the purpose of taking a leading role in issues and legislation that impact agriculture, natural resources and the needs of the state’s rural communities.

Among the initiatives of the Rural Caucus during this year’s session include:
• Providing qualified volunteer firefighters with Class E and Class F driver’s licenses free of charge
• Assisting rural hospitals and healthcare providers in financial crisis
• Addressing the problem of timber theft in Georgia
• Keeping funds in the budget for Young Farmers, FFA and agricultural education
• Drought protection in the Flint River Basin

The Rural Caucus is growing in participation, and we will continue working to ensure a strong future for Georgia’s rural economy and way of life.

Gov. Nathan Deal has announced the Forestland Protection Act grant reimbursements for 2014. The following reimbursements have been awarded to the school districts and city and county governments in House District 176:
• Atkinson County - $10,951 to schools; $12,837 to local governments; $23,788 total
• Lanier County - $51,683 to schools; $47,903 to local governments; $99,586 total
• Lowndes County - $96,279 to schools; $64,240 to local governments; $160,519 total

The fiscal year 2015 state budget proposal recommended by Gov. Deal includes funding for Sparsity Grants to benefit a number of local public schools. According to the Governor's recommendation, Atkinson County High School will continue to receive $21,724, and Lanier County High School will continue to receive $55,667 in FY 2014 and FY 2015, Sparsity grants are intended to provide financial assistance to small, rural schools that the state has determined could not feasibly consolidate with neighboring schools.
On Feb. 6, the House approved two legislative proposals dealing with hunting and fishing licenses in Georgia. HB 740 would allow active-duty military personnel in Georgia to be considered in-state residents for the purpose of obtaining hunting and fishing licenses.

HB 786 would allow the purchase of a Type I Lifetime Sportsman’s License for children less than 2 years old, regardless of the residency of the parents or the child. Presently, these licenses are available to children and certain grandchildren of Georgia residents. The legislation is aimed at boosting the economic impact of fish and wildlife management as well as simplifying the process of obtaining a license. Both bills now go to the Senate for its consideration.

Wireless Upgrades: On Jan. 31, House members approved the Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development Act," which would allow previously approved wireless support structures and wireless facilities to be modified without additional zoning or land use review. HB 176 specifies that the proposed modifications must not substantially change the size of the structures.

Requirements by the local governing authority for the issuance of building and/or electrical permits remain. The bill also provides time limitations for review of new wireless facility applications as well as caps for application fees charged by local governing authorities. These measures are intended to streamline the process between wireless providers and local governments. HB 176 , which now goes to the Senate for its consideration, is the result of significant compromise discussions between stakeholders.

Jekyll Island Development: The House also approved HB 715, which would limit the Jekyll Island State Park Authority to converting no more than 1,675 acres of Jekyll Island's total land area into developed property. The bill also specifies the ways in which the undeveloped land is to be converted, including expansion of existing campgrounds, public health, safety or recreation areas and a 20-acre parcel that will be allowed for unrestricted development.

Under HB 715, the authority is prohibited from selling or otherwise disposing of any riparian rights, and the Jekyll Island beach areas must be kept free and open for public use. The southern portion of the island will continue to be protected, undeveloped land. The bill, which now goes to the Senate for its consideration, does not prevent the construction and use of public bicycle trails, nature trails or picnic areas.

House members gave final approval to legislation requested by local elected officials to streamline campaign finance reporting for candidates who raise and spend very little money for election purposes. SB 297, which now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature, would allow for campaign finance reports to be filed locally and changes the valid period for an affidavit not to accept funds from a calendar year to an election cycle, so that the reports do not have to be filed each year.

House members passed legislation Feb. 6 that would prevent certain areas adjacent to military installations from losing qualification as a “less developed area” because of minor adjustments to census tracts. Such designation provides tax benefits to certain low-income areas. HB 791 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

On Feb. 5, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson of the Supreme Court of Georgia told lawmakers that equal justice under the law is being denied to many Georgians who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. A growing number of citizens who find themselves in the court system are representing themselves without the services of an attorney, which, the chief justice said, often puts them on the losing end of the case.

While praising the work of attorneys who provide pro bono, or legal services at no cost, Chief Justice Thompson said only 9 percent of low-income Georgians are able to receive help from a lawyer. The problem is especially true in Georgia's rural areas, where relatively few attorneys are located. Another issue facing the court system, the chief justice said, is a lack of interpreters for court proceedings involving those who do not speak English, who, he said, "are entitled to justice as well."

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