Georgia House Speaker David Ralston spent a couple of hours in town Monday morning receiving an update on Columbus State University and the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce’s economic development and military affairs efforts.
In great detail, CSU President Chris Markwood outlined the impact the state school with 8,400 students has on the University System of Georgia and Columbus. Executive Vice President William P. Murphy and Executive Vice President for Military Affairs Gary Jones made their respective points about economic development and the impact of troop and federal spending cuts to Fort Benning.
Ralston’s visit came at the request of Chamber President Brian Anderson and less than three months before the General Assembly returns to work. It also comes after a legislative session where Republican Rep. Richard Smith said that fellow Republican Sen. Josh McKoon’s rocky relationship with Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal cost Columbus State and the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center funding in the 2016 state budget.
Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge who had not been to Columbus for an official presentation in several years, noted the community’s drive.
“Back then the 2010 economy was in a bad place,” the speaker said. “I was impressed then and I continue to be impressed at this community’s ability to shoulder through, even when it is dark in other places.”
One of the PowerPoint slides in Markwood’s presentation to Ralston focused on Lenoir Hall, the science center that had $2 million in funding for furniture, fixtures and equipment pulled out of the budget in the final days of the session. The slide showed Columbus State was again going to ask for the funding.
“It is a much-needed lab sciences building,” Markwood said.
The construction was funded in the 2014 state budget and will begin in January.
Ralston watched intently as Markwood went through his presentation. He said nothing to the group that included about 30 business, civic, political and education leaders assembled inside the chamber board room. The group included Smith; Rep. John Pezold, also a Columbus Republican; Rep. Debbie Buckner and Rep. Calvin Smyre, Democrats who represent portions of Columbus. Democratic Rep. Carolyn Hugley was not present. Both Columbus state senators McKoon and Democrat Ed Harbison were not there. The entire delegation was invited, Anderson said.
The speaker said the CSU request, which also includes about $500,000 for redesign work on the renovation of the main campus library, will go through the normal budget process beginning in January.
Asked about the General Assembly members in the group, Ralston responded, “You had a strong House showing today. I don’t focus on who’s not here.”
But Ralston, who did not mention McKoon by name, talked in a one-on-one interview about the importance of communities such as Columbus sending the right people to Atlanta.
“A community has to be very careful about who it selects as leaders to represent its interest in the General Assembly,” Ralston said. “I tell House members all the time their effectiveness comes by relationships and trust that other members have in you. If you don’t have these, you cannot be very effective. ... I don’t make decisions based on personalities. It’s about trust and relationships.”
McKoon, a local attorney, said Monday he was meeting with a client on a pending legal matter and was unable to attend.
“I hope if you are going to mention my absence you will mention the salary of general assembly members and that I make my income for the entire year between April and December as a small business owner,” McKoon said in a text on Monday.
Georgia state senators make a little more than $17,000 a year.
McKoon is the only member of the local delegation facing opposition on Nov. 8. Democrat Ben Anderson is running against McKoon in the heavily Republican District 29 that includes north Columbus, Harris County, part of southern Troup County and Meriwether County.
The General Assembly included $100,000 in last year’s budget, but Deal used a line-item veto to redirect that money.
McKoon has been the champion of religious freedom legislation for three sessions. A version passed the General Assembly in March and was vetoed by the governor. The Columbus senator has had high-profile spats with the governor’s office and the speaker’s office.