Georgia House committee focused on potential BRAC threat meets in Albany

By Jennifer Parks, jennifer.parks@albanyherald.com

ALBANY — The House Military Affairs Study Committee of the Georgia House of Representatives met at the Albany Welcome Center on Monday, discussing how the state’s military bases could be protected from a future Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) action.

Reps. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, the study committee’s chairman, and site coordinator Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, said the purpose of the meeting — along with similar ones held throughout the state — is to allow for the committee to engage in a forum with Albany area community leaders to address how its military community contributes to the region overall.

“It is to improve the military value of Georgia and (to make sure) Georgia remains the best place for military growth,” Belton said.

Georgia has the fifth-largest military population in the country, contributing billions to the state’s economy. The end goal for the committee, Belton and Rynders said, is to listen to feedback and come back with legislation to help meet the needs of Georgia’s installations while also protecting them from federal cutbacks.

“(Military bases) have an economic impact on all of Southwest Georgia,” Rynders said.

Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard and Dougherty County Commission Chair Chris Cohilas presented the official welcome to the committee. In his remarks, Cohilas mentioned Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany’s efforts to be a good steward of resources, including its energy-efficiency efforts and taking Albany’s National Guard armory within its fenceline.

“We have always advocated for our Marine base, and our (delegation) is nice enough to listen to us. … We certainty know it’s a gem because it provides 4,000 jobs, but the Department of Defense also knows it is a gem,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson delivered remarks at the meeting on the global mission and economic impact of MCLB-Albany, addressing the importance of protecting Georgia’s military assets from a national security and capabilities standpoint, alongside U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, and U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton.

Isakson said that, when the horn sounds, there is a strong incentive to make sure all is done that can be done to save a community’s military base. He said that former Dougherty County Commission Chair Jeff Sinyard, who was at the meeting Monday, has been a particularly strong advocate for MCLB-Albany.

“The reason to do this is that if (BRAC) happens (Georgia is prepared),” Isakson said. “You don’t want to take for granted that you will always have those bases.”

Bishop said the meeting was an important gathering in an effort to plan for the future of the state’s military presence, and that BRAC — last enacted in 2005 — is a very real threat. He, like his fellow elected officials, are concerned about how cuts to the military could impact the country’s ability to protect itself.

He said it is not a question of if, but when.

“We’ve got to focus,” Bishop said. “With a shrinking budget … we’ve got to make sure we protect our bases. It is important for strategic defense (to) make sure bases are well-positioned to adapt.”

Bishop noted that continuing to make Georgia a state that is military-family friendly and looking at encroachment can be some of the ways its installations can be seen as more viable.

“Downsizing is a threat,” he said. “We cannot continue to cut (more) because it will effect our readiness.”

Scott, while noting some of the threats the nation faces overseas, stressed that it is important for the delegation representing Georgia to work together so enemies do not see a drawdown as an opportunity to attack.

He added that a loss of military presence in Georgia would be devastating economically, and that the nation needs to be aggressive in the face of its enemies. Improving infrastructure, like the runways at Fort Benning, can be among the ways to ensure the national security that is needed, he said.

“If they (the nation’s enemies) find a gap, they will take it,” Scott said.

Isakson’s visit was part of a planned three-day military tour around the state to highlight the importance of Georgia-based assets and the roles each plays in national defense. Additional stops in the week include the National Infantry Museum in Columbus today and Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins on Wednesday.

The 15-member study committee was established by House Resolution 1135 to examine how to protect Georgia’s military installations from BRAC. Appointments to the committee were announced by Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, in April.

The other representatives on the committee are Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire; John Carson, R-Marietta; Mike Cheokas, R-Americus; David Clark, R-Buford; Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins; John Corbett, R-Lake Park; Darrel Ealum, D-Albany; Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro; Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon; Brian Prince, D-Augusta; Richard Smith, R-Columbus; Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, and Al Williams, D-Midway.

Various entities were represented at the meeting, including the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission, Phoebe Putney Health System, MCLB-Albany and the Albany Area YMCA. Among the others in attendance were state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, state Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, and state Rep. Winifred Dukes, D-Albany.