BY MAGGIE LEE
ATLANTA — Just about a year ago, the Georgia House voted to start looking at how to make sure the state’s valuable military bases will be ready to accept new missions — and not be candidates for closure — in case of federal budget-cutting.
Now the chairman of Georgia’s House Military Affairs Working Group said the state’s bases have a higher profile now, but there is still a perception gap and work to do.
“I think it’s accomplished an awareness from the General Assembly that we need to step up our game in order for the Pentagon to think of Georgia as being a military-friendly state,” said state Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead. “We are a military-friendly state, we love our military, but from a legislative standpoint, we’re not putting our priorities toward making that known.”
The bipartisan group of lawmakers spent last year visiting bases and holding public meetings. They published a report in December with about three dozen policy ideas they thought were worth studying. The state of Georgia has limited power inside base fences, but the committee recommended looking into things that could make communities more attractive to military personnel and the Pentagon, such as investments in fast broadband, in scientific and technical education, and in base-area K-12 schools.
Belton said that the group’s work will include visits to more bases and to federal leaders in Washington, D.C., something other states do as well. The group’s members will also continue to work on legislation suggested by its report.
One idea that has not gotten a hearing is a state income tax exemption for military retirement income. Belton said Georgia’s constitution makes it technically difficult to make that offer to only one group of federal retirees, but that the group will continue to investigate it.
“It’s not just a simple bill, it’s … a much more involved process,” Belton said.
The two Houston County state representatives in that working group — Republicans Shaw Blackmon and Heath Clark — said that one accomplishment so far is that there’s now more awareness of the military’s economic impact in Georgia. Robins Air Force Base alone employs nearly 21,500 people with a payroll of $1.3 billion, according to its latest economic impact report.
Bases are worth about 327,000 on-base and off-base jobs statewide, according to the working group. Figures like that getting more attention in the wider Legislature.
“I think it’s a huge eye-opener, that some may not have recognized,” said Clark, R-Warner Robins.
And those kinds of economic impacts have long made base-area elected officials sensitive to any hints of another round of BRAC, federal Base Realignment and Closure.
“So we need to stay on our toes, I think we need to empower the local communities to address any issues that could that they might feel the need to address locally, and at the state level we need to continue to stay on top of things,” said Blackmon, R-Bonaire.
He made the comment just before the full House passed his House Bill 470, which would authorize the state to make matching grants to communities for projects that help a base impress any federal inspectors.
Several more military measures survived a key deadline on Friday and may get final approval before the Legislature finishes its session on March 30.
Military spouses who are teachers and arrive in Georgia could get quicker work authorization, under House Bill 245 by state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. The House has approved HOPE grants and scholarships for Georgia National Guard members and reservists who serve in Georgia but live in another state, under Blackmon’s House Bill 222. The state would create a women veterans’ office, under Senate Bill 108 by state Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Bonaire. Belton’s House Bill 224 would require K-12 school systems to offer “school choice:” a choice among all their schools to students whose families live in on-base or off-base military housing.
The House is also preparing a sort of letter to the federal government. House Resolution 462, filed Tuesday, says the House is committed to strengthening the state’s military installations, the military value of those institutions and taking action to improve the quality of life of troops and their families.