BY MAGGIE LEE

mlee@macon.com

ATLANTA

Georgia lawmakers are taking a new step to raise the profile of the state’s military bases and communities at the state Capitol and in Washington, D.C.

The state House Military Affairs Working Group will be a “forum” for state legislators to work with the governor’s office and with Georgia’s congressmen, said state Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead.

Their mission is “to find ways to improve the military value of our bases, expand economic opportunities and ensure that Georgia remains the very best state for our war fighters and our veterans to live and thrive,” Belton said.

But the bipartisan group is taking a cautious approach to the ideas of school choice for military families and a tax exemption for military retirement income.

The members of the group spent months last year as a temporary study committee, holding hearings in base communities statewide.

“One thing … we heard over and over again is that military bases want better education, specifically K-12 education in Georgia. They feel like Georgia’s K-12 education is the biggest detriment to keeping its military bases,” Belton said.

But the committee is not united around one idea about it: school choice for military families. School choice would mean that military families could send their children to any K-12 school.

The head of the non-profit organization that advocates for Robins Air Force Base, 21st Century Partnership Executive Director Dan Penny, said he supports the idea of school choice.

Incoming military families may be trying to find a new school that best matches the last school their child attended, for example.

“It comes down to personal choice. What do you like about a school what do you not like about a school, what is offered? For instance, does a high school offer an international baccalaureate program? Some people really value that,” Penny said.

Belton and other lawmakers said the idea of school choice for military families, but there’s not support among the whole committee to make local school boards offer it.

“We hate to go tell the … school boards what they have to do,” Belton said. Instead, he’s suggesting committee members come up with a resolution urging city and county school boards to offer school choice to military families, and then offer to help any who choose to do so.

On the tax front, some committee members want to exempt military retirement income from state taxes.

But they don’t yet have the correct legalese to propose that. State Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, told the committee that the Legislature’s official lawyers reported to him that it’s not legal to exempt one kind of federal retirement income.

“We’re going to continue to look to see how these other states are doing it,” Smith said, “to see if we can adapt our system to that. But as it now stands its pretty much dead until we can figure out a new way to do it.”

The committee will also work to prove that Georgia is committed to its bases and base communities. That will include work in Atlanta as well as keeping in touch with Washington, D.C.

“One of the things we heard traveling the state from the different installations was that the state as a whole just needs to have more of a presence around the Pentagon and around the (U.S.) Capitol,” said state Rep Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins.

Penny said he’s excited that the committee’s work is becoming permanent.

“It gives us a voice up in the (state) Capitol through the committee and through our representatives on a regular basis,” Penny said.