Friday, January 11, 2008

01/10 - GOP leaders plan tackling taxes, water, health care

Gov. Sonny Perdue (right) was joined in his Glynn County stopover by House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (left) of St. Simons Island and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Keen and Cagle said improving access to health care will be a priority in the next General Assembly session. DON BURK/The Times-Union

Ashley Knowles (from left), Kevin White and Madison Poston, all students from Golden Isles Elementary School, greet Gov. Sonny Perdue after he arrived Wednesday at Brunswick-Golden Isles Airport. The governor is touring the state to discuss the upcoming session of the General Assembly. DON BURK/The Times-Union

The Florida Times-Union
January 10, 2008
The Times-Union

BRUNSWICK - Gov. Sonny Perdue got a teddy bear from Glynn County schoolchildren before facing grown-up questions about the future of Jekyll Island and a proposed statewide service tax to fund school systems.

With Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, Perdue brought his airborne pre-legislative pep rally Wednesday to the Brunswick-Golden Isles Airport. The stop was one of nine in the two-day flying tour in which Cagle and Keen discussed their unified agenda for the General Assembly, which convenes Monday in Atlanta.

Their news conference at the airport also drew local elected officials, community and business leaders and residents.

Third-grade students from Golden Isles Elementary School welcomed the governor, Cagle and Keen with warm applause. They also presented them with white teddy bears. The school's mascot is a bear.

The state leaders then walked into the lion's den of reporters and residents who peppered them with questions.

Noting the youngsters were Georgia's future, the governor prefaced his remarks by saying, "It took everything I had to leave those third-graders and come talk to y'all."

The governor sought to allay concerns from some residents and elected officials about the planned development of Jekyll Island, the proposed replacement of school property taxes with a statewide service tax and the state's new water plan.

"We plan to do nothing to damage the water supply or [natural] resources of Jekyll Island," said Perdue, responding to island resident Joseph Iannicelli.

Iannicelli asked why a water withdrawal study hasn't been done to gauge the impact the planned large-scale development could have on residents' private wells.

"I think it will drain a lot of wells," Iannicelli said. "I've seen no studies on the water withdrawal rates ... and I think a study needs to be done before any contract is signed."

The governor then tried to defuse criticism that a proposed oceanfront village overlooking the island's most popular beach will severely limit public access.

"There is no desire on anyone's part to limit beach access. ... We will not allow [public] access to be damaged, or limit the opportunity of the average Georgian to have access to the sea," Perdue said.

Perdue predicted difficulty in replacing property taxes with a sales tax on goods and services as a way to fund public education.

Although he supports the concept, Perdue said lawmakers need to be sensitive to the needs of local school districts and to the potential implications of such a tax switch.

Keen said they "look forward" to taking up the state's proposed water plan, which he said is needed to ensure the quality and quantity of the resource hard hit by the prolonged drought.

Health care, especially improving access to the trauma care statewide, is another top priority, Keen said.

Cagle said unity is essential to keep Georgia moving forward in health care.

He has advocated state grants to create "safety net clinics," where poor and low-income patients could get treatment for common ailments rather than go to hospital emergency rooms, which are more costly.

All three leaders also emphasized that improving education and transportation will be priorities.

"We want to provide real solutions for real people," the governor said.

Meanwhile, the fly-around drew flak from Democrats who chastised the Republican governor and majority leadership for wasting taxpayer money.

"This is just a great big campaign ad for the Georgia GOP, and the taxpayers are footing the bill," said Jane Kidd, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. "It's this kind of government waste that is putting Georgia in a fiscal hole."

Kidd also said the fly-around "is still just a symptom of a larger problem - no oversight, no accountability."
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