Saturday May 25th, 2024 10:16AM

Hall County legislators offer update ahead of 2024 General Assembly session

By Austin Eller News Director

Hall County's legislative delegation gathered Thursday morning to offer an update to the Hall County community about their priorities ahead of the upcoming 2024 session of the Georgia General Assembly.

Eight of Hall County’s nine representatives spoke at the event, including District 49 Senator Shelly Echols, District 50 Senator Bo Hatchett, House District 27 Representative Lee Hawkins, House District 28 Representative Brent Cox, House District 29 Representative Matt Dubnik, House District 30 Representative Derrick McCollum, House District 31 Representative Emory Dunahoo, Jr. and House District 103 Representative Soo Hong. David Clark, Georgia House District 100 Representative, was absent from the event.

The legislators touched on a series of topics, including the recent redistricting special session, Georgia’s Certificate of Need system, TSPLOST, school choice, tax credits and more.

Brian Rochester, President and COO of Rochester and Associates, led the question and answer session and started by asking how the recent special session to redraw the state’s legislative maps went.

“I think, probably, [this is] the first time that a freshman of a committee has ever had to handle something as large as that, and it was brutal, to be honest with you,” Senator Echols said. “But we survived. I learned a lot. We all learned a lot.”

Georgia legislators were required to redraw state legislative maps after U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled in October that the state’s maps were drawn in a racially discriminatory manner. Jones ordered the state to draw an additional Black-majority congressional district. The newly redrawn maps will go back before Judge Jones on Dec. 20.

However, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has appealed Jones’ ruling, which could lead to the original maps being used if the appeal is favored.

“If the judge does not approve [the new maps], then there’s going to be a special master that is assigned that will draw the maps, instead of using our maps,” Representative Hong said. “If any of our maps get approved, then that is the map that we will use for 2024.  If … we win on the appeal, then we can always go back to the map that we have now, before the special session.”

Rochester next asked Senator Hatchett and Representative Hawkins about the possibility of changes in Georgia’s Certificate of Need program. The healthcare-related program requires those looking to create a new hospital or other medical service to show that the addition is needed in the community.

“I do not believe that the CON system should be repealed completely,” Senator Hatchett said. “There are obviously some tweaks that can be brought about … I know the Georgia Hospital Association has some recommendations and I think we’re going to be able to find a good middle ground.”

Hall County’s legislators also touched on mental health-related initiatives they would like to focus on in the new year.

“Last year, there was a big piece of legislation [HB 520] that came through, and there was some language in it that a lot of people were alerted by,” Echols said. “I think that piece of legislation is going to be split up and we’ll pull out the good parts of it and put it in other standalone bills.”

“When I coached high school football my greatest concern was the teenage suicide issue, and one of the reasons I actually started coaching,” Cox said. “Being there for the young adults and the teenagers and their families is incredibly important. The question becomes, should this be driven solely by state, or should this be done by third parties?”

Cox said he strongly encouraged the state to look at third-party options.

Property taxes were a large concern throughout the state in 2023, and Representative Hawkins said he’s planning to look at what can be done in the new session.

“I have two pieces of legislation that concern taxes this year,” Hawkins said. “One’s a local legislation, which our delegation will actually vote on to determine if it goes to the floor, and that’s a 4% cap on homestead exemption … your property assessment would be capped at 4% annually.”

Hawkins said the legislation would be a referendum between Hall County, the City of Gainesville, the Hall County School District and the Gainesville City School District.

Additionally, Hawkins, Echols and other legislators are working on legislation that, if approved, would remove a current rule that requires every municipality within a county to sign an Intergovernmental Agreement to receive 100% of the proposed penny tax in a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. His comments follow an attempt earlier in 2023 to add a TSPLOST initiative to Hall County ballots. The measure failed after Buford and Rest Haven refused to sign an Intergovernmental Agreement on the matter.

“This legislation will be about a 50% threshold,” Echols said. “There will be an incentive for all municipalities to sign on. But that legislation, I think, we will get it through this year. And the governor, I think, will sign it.”

Finally, Representative Matt Dubnik said legislators will continue to look at what can be done about affordable housing across the state.

“We’re going to have to really throw everything out of the window that we’ve assumed will work in the past,” Dubnik said. “We’re going to have to bring all stakeholders to the table, and that’s state government, that’s our local governments, that’s nonprofits, that’s developers … I think if affordable housing was easy we would all be doing it.”

You can listen to the full discussion via the above SoundCloud player. A photo gallery can also be viewed above.

The 2024 legislative session is set to begin on Jan. 8, 2024. It will last 40 days, which do not have to be consecutive. 

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